Rob A. Mackenzie's "The Opposite of Cabbage"
Rob: Quite a few poems vied to open the book before I submitted the manuscript to Salt. Then, up until the penultimate proof, the book began with ‘Voices’, but that poem is all one sentence and the syntax is complicated. A couple of folk who had read the proof felt it wasn’t the best poem to kick off with, even though they liked it. So I moved ‘Light Storms’ from the middle to the front. I wanted a strong poem, formally tight, which introduced the loose theme of opposites colliding, and this one did the job.
‘The Scuffle’ seemed like a good way to end the book, maybe too obvious as it is about endings. The fox/teabag image is absurd, sad and funny (to my mind), so it is fairly typical of the book. The poem gently satirises the big hopes people have for their artistic projects and how seriously they take them. It felt like an apt poem to close a poetry collection!
Jee: I want to re-open the question of national identity in your book by thinking about Scotland’s relationships to England and the USA. Your poem “Sevenling (Elizabeth had II)” comments drily on the political domination of England over the Union. The domination is also linguistic. As the poem puts it with such devastating concision:
The nineteenth century acts defined English
as a language and Scots a dialect. Gaelic was
a silence; the cane stroked it out the schools.
Are you a Scottish nationalist, that is, are you in favor of Scottish independence from the UK? Or is nationalism archaic, given the historical movement towards European union? After all, the Poles, as your poems remind us, are already in the country, their presence fiercely resented by xenophobic drunks and bus commuters in your poem “Everyone Will Go Crazy.” How does your politics, in these issues, influence your poetry?
Rob: I am in favour of Scottish independence, yes. However, I’m not a nationalist in any patriotic sense. I believe we’d be better to make our own decisions rather than have them made for us by a large, dominant power. That way, when we make mistakes, we’d only have ourselves to blame, and any successes would be ours too. But I have an inclusive view of Scottishness which includes everyone living here, no matter where they are from, and I believe in greater European integration. My poems are frequently political, although I try to stay off my soapbox. I want my work to engage with what’s going on around me. The personal and the political are nearly always linked.
Jee: Significantly, your book quotes two American poets, but not a single English one, in its epigraphs. In “Scottish Sonnet Ending in American,” Billy Collins is used, half-ironically, as a way of declaring cultural independence from English poetry. In “Moving On,” John Ashbery provides a way of evading traditional narrative. The Americans seem to point to a way of differentiating oneself from what has been done before.
Their example, however, is another sign of American cultural domination, an influence on Scotland playfully mocked in “How New York You Are,” and more seriously criticized in other poems about the corporatization and commercialization of communal life. What promises and dangers does American poetry, and culture, hold for a Scottish poet?
Rob: Scottish poets have often looked with interest to the USA. I really like writers such as Wallace Stevens, James Schuyler, Denis Johnson, Frederick Seidel, and several other U.S. poets. However, in my book, the USA represents another of those colliding opposites: on one side there is commodification, celebrity and crassness which threatens to engulf life in small nations like my own, but on the other there’s an amazing cultural richness and daring artistic imagination in the best poetry and prose from the USA. ‘Scottish Sonnet Ending in American’ represents the struggle between those conflicting tendencies on Scottish soil.
Jee: These poems employ many different points of view. The more personal poems are spoken by a lyrical “I.” A more public poem like “Scotlands” uses “we.” Then, there are those poems written in the second person: “Light Storms from a Dark Country,” “Homes of the Future Exhibition,” and “In the Last Few Seconds,” which begins with the terrific reiteration of “you”:
In a smudge of tail-lights you watch your soul go,
then you spin round corners you would have taken
slow before you gulped back the rum. The bottle
xxxxxxxrocks on the backseat.
These “you” poems are among my favorites in the book. When do you use the second person? How does that point of view help create a ‘successful’ poem?
Rob: Well, often the second person creates unsuccessful poems! So whenever I use it, I have to ask myself serious questions. In pop songs it’s often used to denote an abstract lover. It could well be the dominant mode in the rock lyric and I don’t think that translates well to poetry. I could have written all three of these poems in the third person, but that would have placed the characters at a remove. The lyric ‘I’ didn’t seem right.
I’ve heard some readers taking quite a hostile view of ‘you’ poems, those which address the reader directly. ‘I am not watching my soul go in a smudge of tail lights’, a reader might say, with some justification. Nevertheless, the poem is inviting the reader to place him/herself in that position. The same goes for “Homes of the Future Exhibition”, which features a ‘you’ cut adrift from everything around – possessions, family, words and names. I’m asking readers to stand in that person’s shoes and to consider how it feels. I hope most readers feel able to take the step and come along for the ride.
Some people are suspicious of the lyric ‘I’ and want poems to negate the self and its feelings. Some people are suspicious of ‘we’ and feel a poet can’t speak as a representative for anyone else. Some people are suspicious of ‘you’ for reasons stated above (and others). These suspicions encourage me to use all of them as often as possible.
Jee: There seems to be a conscious effort to be less narrative and more surreal than in your earlier pamphlet The Clown of Natural Sorrows. For instance, in “White Noise” the trumpet notes cry, in a surprising and memorable comparison, “like anarchic goats.” What or who inspired the change? Beyond achieving surface surprise, what does the change in method signify?
Rob: Most poets start by writing narrative. That’s no bad thing. You can develop a broad range of techniques and narrative can often be interesting, especially if it’s combined with good ideas and an imaginative approach. Great linear narrative poems are still being written and always will be.
I’ve moved away from linear narrative, partly because of what I was reading in the period between the pamphlet and the book, but I also became very conscious of how words can impact on a scene, of how constant narration can sometimes impede a poem’s depth. In “White Noise”, I could have moved immediately from the trumpet notes to the next stage in the narrative, but the comparison with the anarchic goats establishes them as a symbol – images of whiteness and lack of control run through the poem and are very much tied to the narrator’s mood. The trumpet notes themselves recur like a theme in a piece of music. That said, there is narrative in the poem. It just doesn’t happen in a linear way.
I like to challenge myself as a writer to progress from what I’ve done before. I think I’ve managed that with this book and I hope I’ll be feeling the same if I publish another.