Rob A. Mackenzie was born and brought up in Glasgow. He received a law degree from Aberdeen University and then abandoned the possibility of significant personal wealth by switching to theology at Edinburgh University. He wrote over seven hundred songs and doubled on guitar and saxophone for cult art-rock bands Pure Television and Plastic Chicken. Despite airplay on Radio Scotland and a rash of gigs in tiny Glasgow pubs, he failed miserably to achieve rock stardom. He spent a year in Seoul, eight years in a Lanarkshire housing scheme, five years in Turin, and now lives in Edinburgh with his wife and daughter where he organises the Poetry at the Great Grog reading series by night and works as a Church of Scotland minister by day. His pamphlet collection, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005. The Opposite of Cabbage was published this year by Salt Publishing . His poems, articles and criticism have featured in many literary publications over the last decade or so. He is an associate editor with Magma magazine. He blogs at Surroundings and at the Magma blog.
Rob, will you describe the Glasgow of your childhood? What were the main social, political and cultural influences of your youth?
I lived in the south-west of the city. Like most boys, I was a football fanatic. My great uncle took me to games (I maybe won’t mention which team) and I played for my Boys Brigade team until I became a teenager and left the BB. I was a chess fanatic and played for an under-18 team when I was 12. I also learned the bagpipe and entered many competitions. A big change took place when I turned 15 or so. I dropped the bagpipe in favour of the guitar and started a band. Glasgow briefly became the centre of everything that was happening in UK music during the 80s. Indie pop music, particularly the jangly guitar variety, was vital to me. I sat in my bedroom and listened to The Smiths, Orange Juice and Josef K. I watched Woody Allen movies and read Graham Greene novels. I guess I was typical of a certain type of teenager – the kind who wears black clothes and finds solace in Joy Division lyrics. I might have had better fun hanging around outside the chip shop and going to parties, but it’s too late now.
You spent a year in Seoul. Would you recount something of that experience?
It was a great experience, from 1989 to 1990. I studied Korean liberation theology, taught English, and generally had a great time meeting people and travelling around a country many people would never think of going to. I loved the food, the friendliness of the people, the clamour of the city, the maccoli houses (maccoli is a Korean alcoholic drink, made from rice, more like beer than wine) and the beauty of the countryside. The country was a still a little unstable, despite 1988’s democratic election, and there were protests daily on the streets. The college where I was studying was shut down for two months due to student unrest. There was often tear gas in the air and I learned to carry a hanky around with me to cover my nose and eyes, just in case. But people, especially young people, seemed positive about the future and were excited over the new freedoms. They wanted to talk all the time about politics, the west, and Korean identity. When I returned to Scotland, people seemed really jaded and cynical in comparison, and I often wonder whether Koreans have become similarly cynical over the last twenty years or not.
Later, you moved to Turin for five years. Has living in other countries, among different cultures and languages, affected your writing and the way you see the world? Has moving around the world been beneficial for you?
That’s hard to know. I’ve enjoyed the experiences I’ve had living abroad. It’s widened my social and cultural experience, helped me understand what it’s like to live as a foreigner, and introduced me to some great people. It also, perhaps, gives me a particular perspective on Scotland. I can look at how things are done here and compare it to other places. I’ve no excuses when I’m small-minded. Of course, there are strengths to living in the same place for an entire life as well.
You’re the organiser of Poetry at the Great Grog in Edinburgh. Tell me about the history and some of the highlights of the reading series. How does a Great Grog poetry evening unfold?
It began when Scottish poet, Roddy Lumsden, who lives in London, asked me to organise a venue for him to read in during a trip to Edinburgh. I found the Great Grog Bar and decided afterwards that I could do it more often. It’s now developed into a monthly series – three or four poets read each time. The event has recently moved from the Great Grog to the Jekyll & Hyde Bar, which suits the readings better, and the event is now called ‘Poetry at the…’. Poets read for 15 to 20 minutes with a short break after each reading. There are no gimmicks, no bells and whistles – just quality poems. As organiser, I wouldn’t want to pick out highlights. I’m grateful to everyone who has read. Really, there have been no poor readings at all and I hope that continues.
The Guardian is currently running a series called Writers’ Rooms. Will you describe your creative space?
My office is chaotic. I don’t have enough space on my bookcase. Books and CDs are spread all over the place in no particular order. In one corner is my computer, where I tend to write. At another wall, there’s a desk, which is rarely free from clutter. That’s dominated by my day job – notes, admin, forms to fill in, stuff I need to read for professional reasons. Copies of The Opposite of Cabbage lie morosely in a box on the floor. Pictures drawn by my seven-year-old daughter adorn the walls. A naked bulb hangs from the ceiling. There are no curtains or blinds at the window, which overlooks my neighbour’s garden. As I write this, their washing is being soaked by a sudden downpour…
How transformative has fatherhood been for you? Has it made you feel differently about yourself? Has it changed your outlook on life?
I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate how much becoming a parent changes a life. Everything begins to revolve around your children. This is made more complicated for my wife and I because my daughter is autistic. She is extremely intelligent, with unbelievable memory, sight, hearing etc, but she also has real difficulties, especially in social situations. One thing I realised quickly was how few resources are directed to the condition compared to many other disabilities. We spend a lot of time agitating for support and help, often being met with official indifference and excuses. We get the feeling that countries such as Australia and (to an extent) the USA are far more geared up to deal with autism, although I could be wrong.
I don’t feel that children and young people are valued much in the UK at the best of times compared to, for example, Italy. I doubt I would have been as aware of this if I hadn’t been a parent. And is the UK the only country in the world where it’s actually cool to be apathetic? I think that’s because deliberate apathy is only a short step from helplessness. Having a child means I can’t afford to be apathetic.
Could you name a few of your favourite books? Why are they important to you?
I’ll stick to five, otherwise I could go on forever. Tomorrow, I’d probably choose different books. In no particular order:
Harmonium by Wallace Stevens: His debut collection from 1921. It’s like a foundation for me when I come to write. Nothing has been easily won or thoughtlessly written. I return to this collection periodically to remind myself what poetry can be.
The Truth of Poetry by Michael Hamburger: on one level, an international overview of 20th century poetry but, on another, an uncompromising and visionary view of what poetry has been and could be. Warning: this book may change the way you see every poem you read or write.
Black Sea by Neal Ascherson: ostensibly a chronicle of the history, culture and people of the Black Sea region, this fascinating book delves into deep questions of human identity. Ascherson shows how past events in this region resonate powerfully in the present day. It’s also terrific writing.
Jesus and Judaism by E.P. Sanders: I appreciate heavyweight, well written, impeccably researched theology, and this is one of the most interesting books I’ve read. The book questions and revises received opinion but, unlike populist books on Christianity, knows what it’s talking about.
Selected Poems by Michael Hofmann: can’t recommend this book of poems enough. One of the best poets of the 20th century’s tail-end? I think so.
Read more about The Opposite of Cabbage.
Visit Rob’s blog, Surroundings.
If you haven’t been following Rob’s book tour and want to catch up on his interviews, do check out his previous hosts.
Rob’s next tour stop is Nic Sebastian’s Very Like A Whale on
10 August 2009. See you there.