Fellow Scots, friends, poets and bloggers Marion McCready and Morgan Downie review and interview each other on their recent poetry collections. Both are published by Calder Wood Press.
Marion McCready was born on the Isle of Lewis and brought up in Dunoon, Argyll, where she currently lives with her husband and two young children. She studied at Glasgow University and her poetry has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Vintage Sea (Calder Wood Press, 2011) is her first pamphlet. Marion blogs at http://sorlily.blogspot.com.
morgan downie is a poet, short story writer, artist and passionate mountain biker. he was not born in orkney but grew up there and describes himself as an orcadian by formation. he has had a long and varied career in healthcare. stone and sea (calder wood press, 2010) is his first full length collection. morgan blogs at
Marion on morgan’s work
stone and sea is a beautiful exploration of land and folk memory written with emotional intensity and precision. Morgan speaks with the confidence of a natural storyteller as he draws the reader gently into the rhythm of lives lived and shaped by the landscape around them. The back cover says his poems are “held together by a clear spiritual feeling for people and places”.
A favourite poem of mine in the collection is ‘the weaver’ with its precise language, simple yet affecting imagery (“a darting fish/ in the half moons/ of her hands”), and a rather wonderful ending where “the fabric/ spills from her /like the tide” which, rather than closing the poem off, opens it out to inhabit the landscape in the reader’s imagination.
Morgan paints serene landscapes succinctly with words: “here a whalebone/ the vertebra/ juts from the sand/ like a sail” (‘beachcombing’). “i slept in the skull/ of a dead boat /the skeletal hull/ splintered into/ the setting sun/ netting dreams” (‘beached’). And from ‘painting the sand at uig’, “cloudscape, the bone memory/ of western sand/ the windblown skeletons of urchins,/ aimless as tumbleweed”.
Morgan and I both have a connection to the Outer Hebrides, I having been born there and Morgan having lived there for a number of years.
Another favourite in the collection is ‘huisinis’ (pronounced hoo-shi-nish). It exhibits Morgan’s instinctual rhythm in language which compliments his preference for short lines, both of which act as a driving energy pushing the reader on through the poem. When I went on holiday to the Outer Hebrides last year I passed by Huisinis, on the Isle of Harris, and thought of Morgan’s poem and how language, place names, can conjure up a familiarity, a connection to a place. I had never been to Huisinis but just seeing the place name and hearing in my head the wonderful, gentle echo of it repeated at the end of this poem made me realise that Morgan’s poem had already connected me to the place.
the language like birds
wind-driven, light boned
white fragments tossed
above the mean glottals
of the exposed schists
softer in the machair
the whispering of grasses
experts at survival
in conditions of desiccation
in summer the corncrake
insistent, sharp as
the incline of the clisham
as desolate, as beautiful
as scarp in blue water
the rhythm of the peat
the blunt bite of spade
down through layers
thick as dictionaries
and out, out
to the empty sea
bare of boats
precentor to echoes
a hundred words
for wave and wind
gone now, songs
sung in the bones
of the whaling station
where is this place
huisinis we say
gentle as a lullaby
to the tired ear
Marion interviews morgan
You bring an intensity to your poems which is partly due your preference for short lines and continuous enjambment. Is this mainly instinctual on your part, or is it, for want of a better phrase, part of a winning writing formula for your work?
i’m not so sure it’s a winning formula – people seem to take issue with ‘long skinny poems’! i had to go back and have a look the poems i wrote in my teens and it seems i’ve always written in something like this format so there must be a strong instinctual element in it. equally though there’s the element of writing what i want to read. i have memories of looking at skinny poems (i wish i could remember which ones) and thinking how uncluttered the page looked, how much precedence the writer was giving to the individual words.
put another way, i remember a musician talking about how he wanted his music to sound like a drum kit falling down stairs. i like that. not only do you have the stave quality of the stairs but there’s that random element of falling and sound. when i’m writing it’s the same. the words go where the words go, the line length is its own form. as a reader i see it as an invitation, like going for a walk. you’re free to make your own interpretations, your own associations. i guess this reflects some of the literary theory i’ve absorbed over the years.
I’d imagine the first thing most people notice about stone and sea is your decision not to use capitalisation and your limited use of punctuation throughout the entire collection. Was this a consciously theoretical/political decision, a rebellion of sorts against the acceptable ‘rules’ of language or current poetry, or is it part of a more personal poetics?
i think the thing, along with the long skinny poem, that most people comment on (almost before they’ve read the poems!) is that i don’t use capitals and i’m scant on the use of punctuation. would it be too prosaic to suggest that when it comes to typing i’m just too lazy to use the shift key?
i did once use capitals (again, it’s great to have notebooks so you can look back in time and wince/see what you did back in the day). i used to use them at the start of every line but i remember getting negative feedback from some magazine many years ago that this was ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘wasn’t done’. maybe that was when it started to change or maybe i just wanted to make the poetry distinct from the prose.
so, from a chronological perspective i suppose it could be viewed as reactionary but for me it seems much more like an aesthetic choice. we take a lot of time thinking about where we put these wee black marks, how we arrange them in the context of one another so it seems that the notion of the negative space around them should be equally important and really, to be honest, fundamental in terms of poetry. the white page is both a framing device and a substrate in terms of its physicality but there’s also that notion of space, space to stop a while, space to think, roll the words around a bit, sound them out loud, a bit like having a seat on a summer’s day, looking out at the landscape and becoming the view.
I know you read a lot of poetry and you read widely but who do you return to again and again as your staple poet and who has had the greatest influence on your work?
in terms of influence i don’t really have many ‘go to’ poets. i would definitely cite various works of non-fiction as a means of thinking my way into an approach. off the top of my head i’d want to be putting my hand on the likes of simon schama’s landscape and memory, anything by marina warner and gaston bachelard’s poetics of space.
i tend to like poems that aren’t written in english, preferably in a bilingual edition so that i can feel the weight of the original on my tongue. german’s great for this, particularly if you’re scottish because you can really get around the sounds. so it’s more particular books than actual writers that have influenced me – i have a feeling there’s some sort of poetic heresy in there!
while my gaelic is atrocious i very much like poetry in gaelic. aonghas macneacail and meg bateman are two names that spring immediately to mind, and the an leabhar mor is a book i wouldn’t like to be without. i was very taken by robert lowell’s imitations, which opened up a whole world of translation/interpretation/ transliteration for me. if i’m stuck i’ll still return to the introduction. whitman, obviously. i went through a verlaine phase for a while and he may well be the only poet i can still manage to recite from memory. homer and the sagas from when i was wee. paul celan’s collected poems (the hamburger translation) would have to be a desert island book. he’s just so fierce, so out there, that reading him is the closest i can get to some form of transcendental experience. henrik nordbrandt it seems to me is someone who doesn’t get read enough. on the home front, and similarly, at least in this country, not widely enough read, is kenneth white, particularly for the concept of the waybook which i think has niggled away in the back of my mind ever since i read travels in the drifting dawn.
You’ve published short stories as well as poetry and your poems, such as your sequence on St. Columba, definitely demonstrate your storytelling ability. What is it about the people in your poems that inspires you to write about them?
when i was wee and living up north i spent a lot of time in myths and sagas whether it was homer or norse folklore. norse folklore had so much relevance because i could physically place the narrative into the landscape. i could go to the beach where magnus was killed. i could go to the pillar in the cathedral where his bones were. the dividing line between story and ‘reality’ was very fine to a boy!
i guess when i’m writing about a particular character or element in a story (stone and sea starts with the western isles myth about god and the jewels) it’s not so much the character or the myth but the experience of being in a moment that could be applicable to a particular character or situation, a phenomenological approach if you like. in that way, talking about the columba poem, i get to not only think a bit about columba but also that notion of being silent in a boat, looking up at the sky, waiting for landfall, all of those things at once.
You use, at times, almost scientific terminology in your poems, I’m thinking of ‘formations’ here. Is this related to your background of studying and working in a medical environment?
for me as a poet this works at a couple of levels. in the first instance i’ve spent a lot of time with a friend who’s a geologist so his interpretation of the landscape, his way of seeing, is very different and that heteroglossality is of primary concern. equally, however, it’s just the language. without wanting to get all heideggerian the idea that the moment of language is what we exist in is fascinating for me. it doesn’t really matter whether it’s geology, medical terminology, painting or whatever i just love using the words. when i use something like monestial turquoise in one of my painting poems for example – it may be the reader doesn’t paint, doesn’t know what that is but once that word-door has been opened there’s no going back. it’s synaesthesic for me, the word as spell. it’s not to ignore the language of men argument just that what i’m interested in using is the language of this man. not to do so, to use the language i live in, would feel like a betrayal.
Not only do you write stories and poems but you also paint and create all sorts of artworks. How do these activities inform your poetry, if at all?
i don’t really see any separation between poetry and the other things i do. it would be easy to make a division, to say that this is creative and that is not, but in truth there’s as much satisfaction for me in making jam from berries i’ve grown in my garden as there is in making a poem or a painting. in fact, in some ways, because of the transitoriness of the jam, it’s superior, it can’t be recaptured.
cycling could be thought of as just some form of physical battering, an acceptable form of self harm, but that’s not to accept the meditative element of it. i think it feeds directly into a creative effort even if it gets tricky to write a haibun in the middle of climbing a hill! what it teaches me is to take the time to stop, to look.
i was very taken with the idea of the temporary autonomous zone back in the day and still have an affection for those notions. i think an open minded approach to different forms of creativity and what constitutes creativity itself is essential. it leads you down different thought paths, evolves different techniques, approaches and reveals previously unknown influences. it’s one of the the reasons i’m always ready to jump into collaborative work, there’s always that element of the magical mystery tour. beyond that i’m really not that bothered, it’s only the work that’s important. everything else is gravy! but i do like that sense of not knowing what comes next, where the path will lead. for me, that’s a joy.
What are your current writing projects?
there’s a photo book coming out, with any luck later this year, the follow up to stone and sea is almost done, there’s a book of short stories and … and … there’s always an and. i’m not brilliant at finishing. part of it is that i don’t much like the editing process and while i’ll easily hold my hand up as a procrastinator of some ability that’s not really it either. i like the feel of being in the midst of something, that there remains a potentiality that mitigates against an end point. i suppose there’s that thing that a completed work is like a child that you have to let go, to let it do its own thing in the world but there’s also that other part in which completion feels like a form of death. i feel this is changing these days, maybe it’s my day job. we feel, too often, that there’s always time but the reality is there really isn’t. to that end i don’t really have any writing projects, any more than i have a breathing project! it seems a wonderful privilege in this short life to put pen to paper, brush in paint, to make something out of less than air. for me that’s what it should be about, weaving stories, patterning words, divining up some sort of magic.
morgan on Marion’s work
i’ve met marion a few times now. i’d hazard a guess that i’d recognise her in a busy street, but these poems – i know them. so i’m happy to not be watching the dauphiné, putting the tv off and welcoming these upon my eyes like someone i’ve been waiting to visit and take into my house. i can’t remember the last time i read a pamphlet from cover to cover but i did with this, a wee smile with each recognised face.
i don’t know these places, who or what is burnie mackinnon, the gantocks or the captayannis and, to be honest, i don’t care. i like their shapes, the feel of them as i say their names – if nothing else this is a collection that deserves to be read out loud by somebody scottish! – and i love the fine detail, the small changes where i can see that marion has (finally!) decided this is the finished article. yes, i say, i see what you did there.
from my own perspective i like the later poems. not that there’s any indication of which these are but i know and for me these are where i find marion’s voice at her most confident and, collected like this, they give me a great sense of anticipation for what she does next (sad that it’s always about what comes next!). there is great language here and when i read it i get the same sensation as i do when i look up words in foreign language dictionaries, taking the familiar and transforming it on my tongue. i can’t be doing much with questions of meaning, it’s all about the feel and vintage sea feels great.
Autumn trees are effigies
burning in the streets.
They lose their leaves, their wings,
into every corner, crevice,
These falling prayers,
these harvest psalms.
The bloodied skins of them
shirring the ground.
Harbingers. Little deaths,
they harp at my feet
words begging to be said,
words begging to be freed:
two men shall be in a field,
one shall be taken, the other one left
morgan interviews Marion
you’ve just completed a close reading of sylvia plath. how much do you find she influences you and has the process of close reading affected your approach to writing, technical or otherwise?
In a sense I’ve never not closely read Sylvia Plath’s work. Plath’s Collected Poems was the first poetry collection I ever purchased by an individual poet and her imagery, intensity of language and surprising juxtapositions make her a constant inspiration to me of how language can be forged to create experiences in themselves rather than simply be the recording or the re-telling of an experience. I guess this is something I aim towards achieving, in my own way, in my poems.
we’ve both recently expressed a liking for the ‘darksome browns’ of gerald manley hopkins. for you, what comes first, the image or the words?
The image, definitely. When first reading a poem I tend to skim the words and focus on the images. It takes a few readings for me to focus on what the poem is actually about. I’m a very image-orientated reader. It’s not uncommon for me to wonder which film a picture in my mind comes from only to remember that it comes from a book. One of the things I love most about poetry is how condensed language can create a series of powerful, impacting images in such a short space. For me, it’s normally an image and the symbolism that it entails that sparks the inspiration for a poem.
as i read vintage sea i’m struck by the notion of you walking, being engaged with your local environment. how important is the notion of locality to you?
That’s exactly how many of the Vintage Sea poems came to be written. Because I can’t drive I do a lot of walking and many of the images in my poems are drawn from my local landscape. Locality is important to me only in the sense that writing about the specific is the only way to write genuinely about the universal, although this sounds contradictory. It’s also a case of write what you know. I remember reading somewhere that until you conquer your own landscape in writing you can’t hope to write about anywhere else. It’s a thought that’s always stuck with me.
i described the environment in your poems as a ‘transformational landscape’. to what extent do story/myth and myth-making form part of your writing process? (i’m thinking here about the likes of ‘brenhilda’ or ‘captayannis’)
Myth, and in many ways nature, are for me vehicles for exploring and to some extent de-personalising experiences in order to write about them. In ‘Captayannis’ for instance I write about a miscarriage I had a number of years ago. I found I could only objectify it and therefore write about it using the shipwreck as a distancing mechanism. Ted Hughes wrote “a feeling is always looking for a metaphor of itself in which it can reveal itself unrecognised” (Letters of Ted Hughes). I use myth and local stories in this sense as metaphors for exploring my own feelings and experiences.
initially i recall your reluctance with regard to publicly reading your poetry. now that you’re getting into it do you find it has changed the way you look at the vintage sea poems and has it affected your approach to writing new poems?
The awareness that comes with reading poetry aloud and in public came before I wrote the Vintage Sea poems and had a fairly large impact on the writing of these poems even though I myself hadn’t read publicly until last year. I think in some ways the poems I’m writing now have a less obvious emphasis on sound though sonic qualities are, and always will be, an integral driving part of the writing process for me. I’m interested in pushing other poetry ‘tools’ to the fore in order to expand my writing.
Read, read, read. I’ve currently banned myself from reading my old favourite poets – Plath, Eliot and Akhmatova – in order to read other poetry wider and deeper. I’ve noticed how easy it is to slip into the comfort of reading and re-reading favourite poets and poems. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved with my Vintage Sea poems but I’m also ready to move on from them and hopefully improve and expand my writing. Part of the pleasure of writing poetry for me is the continual intellectual and emotional challenge. I’m hoping that focusing on some different poets for a lengthy period will open up my writing to new influences and expand and challenge it. This of course means lots of experimentation and inevitable failure which is always a little intimidating! At the moment I’m focusing mainly on the poetry of Durs Grünbein and Claire Crowther and thoroughly enjoying it.
Order Vintage Sea and stone and sea from Calder Wood Press.
Visit Marion’s blog.
Visit Morgan’s blog.