Interview with Jim Carruth
Andrew Roberts, December 2009
AR: I’d like to start with a question about form, because one thing that interests me particularly about your work is the way that you try out some very different approaches to form. So my first question is: how do you see the relationship between form and content in your work – which drives the other? If that’s a possible question.
JC: I think it can be organic. You know, it can start with some words or a chain of thought. With my collection Cowpit Yowe some of the shapes were dictated by this idea of field. Something that was a bit more regular, where form is struggling to cope with the rigid boundaries that you might set on the page, the idea that form would be something you’re working against. One of the first poems in the collection is based on this idea of trying to move out of a set form – looking at the creative appeal of ‘set aside’ compared with the strict parameters of the ploughed field– There are a number of poems that have squares or rectangles and some of them were responding to the idea of the field. Some have just come out of my head, others from looking at the verse forms created by other people. There are a range of different poems in the collection and I like the idea that readers are always having to adjust to what is in front of them. Within Cowpit Yowe there’s not just what might be seen as visual poetry. There’s some that are very traditional. The traditional-looking poems are much easier to read as poems, whereas in some of the other ones there is a challenge as to how you travel through them.
AR: Yes, I was interested in ‘Farm Sale’ which quite unlike a conventional poem, and yet very poignant
JC: It’s a ‘found’ poem, and sometimes ‘found’ poems are taken whole from some original source, sometimes the original text is shaped and shrunk into something different, which was the case in ‘Farm Sale’. The words came from a catalogue of an actual farm sale. I was trying to reinforce the language of agriculture, and the fact that a farm sale sells everything, down to nuts, and bolts, and scrap. Something like that is a very soul-destroying experience for the farmer, and I’ve written other poems which might be seen as more traditional poems on a similar theme, but this was just another way of looking at it. It’s still only excerpts of the catalogues that they hand out, but it gives this sense that everything goes, and there’s nothing left. I suppose one thing I should say about Cowpit Yowe as a whole is that I probably had about sixty or seventy ideas whittled down to get to the twenty poems that ended up in the book. So there’s things that I’ve tested on people and they’ve said ‘no, I’m not really sure what you’re trying to get at there’. That’s helped with the editing process. With some of these poems, though they might make perfect sense to me or be something I want to explore, if the reader isn’t picking up some sort of essence of what I’m trying to do I haven’t got what I wanted out of it. I don’t want it to be so obscure that they’re struggling too much with it; something that’s insurmountable for the reader to understand.
AR: It’s striking the way that the list of items for sale has its own form in that it goes down, as you say, to these smaller items and that creates a sense of poignancy.
JC: Yes, even in the more traditional verse collections, I’ve always been interested in litany as a way of recording names as though that’s some way of keeping them safe. So at the bottom of each of the pages of all my collections is a field name or a name of a local farm that has gone out of business. Cowpit Yowe has a litany of names of cows from my brother’s herd.
There’s a poem that talks about driving through the fields as a childhood memory in High Auchensale, and there’s one in Bovine Pastoral at the end of the collection that’s about a couple dancing through empty fields. It names again the local dairy farms that have gone out of business and had to sell their herds. All that remains are these silent fields. When I read the poem with the farm names in it in public, it takes on a sombre pace. I was talking to someone once after a reading and they were really moved by it. They felt it was like listening to the reading out of a list of war dead. For me, it’s about naming and language and about trying to create an entire landscape in verse that celebrates a community. I hope the combination of the first four small collections or cycles will successfully map the language and life of our local community. The other three elements of the cycle are more traditional than Cowpit Yowe. Cowpit Yowe, I think will prove problematic for publishers in terms of bringing the four cycles together as one. It’s almost too different from the other ones, although I see it personally as very much part of this bigger project that I’m trying to do. The readers are the same. Many readers prefer the other cycles. There’s a smaller group that prefer Cowpit Yowe.
AR: There seems to be something of a revival in concrete poetry at present.
JC: There is a programme of events and exhibitions currently running centred around the Scottish Poetry Library and I think possibly the reasons for concrete poetry are different now from what they were in the 60s, 70s – less linked to a modernist agenda. I thought initially that concrete poetry was something that was specifically urban, but recently I felt that the field being a sort of manufactured space with straight lines that don’t necessarily run with the contours provides a tension that I could work with.
AR: That makes me wonder how you feel about Ian Hamilton Finlay who is an influence on many concrete poets. Obviously his work is focused neither on the urban nor precisely on the rural, is it, but on the garden?
JC: I’ve been to Little Sparta and it’s great. I went there on a bus trip a number of years ago, and every other person on the bus was a gardener, and I was a poet, so probably we approached the experience differently. There are lots of wonderful things in the garden and plenty of surprises. It’s an indication of the way his mind was working, and not just in Little Sparta but also in terms of his other poems. The first concrete poetry I came across was definitely Morgan, and Finlay, and that would have been in the mid-nineties. I did try a couple of my own creations, which weren’t published, and then I sort of drifted from it. The one poem that was published at that time was chosen as part of a poetry competition anthology in 1998. It was a poem in four parts about industrial decline and looking back on it now it is clear it had been influenced by the likes of Liz Lochhead, Edwin Morgan, and Tom Leonard . The visual part of the poem was called ‘Welder’s Lament’ and it started with the words only metal: which transform slowly into lonely men, and then meet lonely. I also had a couple of bullets in as rivets. So I was experimenting even in 1998, but from then on my work was much more traditional, and it took a long while to go back.
AR: There wasn’t one thing that brought you back?
JC: This anthology for one , The Order of Things, I found really inspiring with the amount of variety in it. Ian Hamilton Finlay with Little Sparta was another. I went to a small exhibition of Alan Riddell as well, and I was well aware of Edwin’s Morgan’s stuff, you know the combination. There were lots of poems that started to trigger ideas with their different ways of looking at things. I liked the idea, that people would be surprised with the turn of the page. It was also interesting to watch people work through them when they were on the wall in the exhibition.
AR: Yes – I’ve showed them to friends and students, and I got exactly that reaction. They try to work it out and you can see the point at which the form becomes clear to them.
JC: Yes hopefully they’ll get there. All these poems are meant to be read, now that’s not necessarily true of all concrete poems. They might be just a litany of words, breeds of cattle or agricultural equipment, but I can see myself reading them all.
AR: There is a view of concrete poetry, that it is, as Finlay says, silent poetry, and yet there is the connection to sound poetry. So it can go two ways.
JC: I would say the poems in this collection are a personal decision … I wanted to read them, and read them out. Part of my normal editing process of my other poems is reading out loud. So I was reading these out loud, even though I was creating a very different structure.
AR: So are the spaces on the page important to you, because some concrete poets, attribute a lot of importance to the space?
JC: I think the use of space is important. I was very keen to play around with space, and in the poem ‘Generations Enjoy the Heritage of Husbandry’ there’s a gap almost like an empty field in the middle, and it has voices talking about ancestry down each side. I feel there is something the space in the middle says about loss. To help me with my shaped poems, I worked with my sister-in-law who does a lot of type setting as she works on a magazine. I would come up with some ideas that I wasn’t able to do with my limited technical ability so I would ask her if she could do a circle, or some other strange shape, and gave her the headache. ‘Can you do with this? Or that?’. Some things just weren’t able to be done. You can do so much more than just write horizontally across the page.
AR: Did you get ideas back from her? Did she say ‘why don’t you do this?’
JC: She would talk about the limitations of the page, she would say ‘well, you can’t physically fit that on this type of pamphlet; you’re going to have to think of whether you shorten it or use a different font’. With ‘normal’ collections you simply pick a font, and use the same font for the rest of the book. Some of the poems in Cowpit Yowe have been accepted for magazines, and their editors have struggled to get exactly the same shape. I never really thought about that, and I think this might be the challenge for having them as part of a longer book. It requires a lot more effort from the publisher, and poetry publishers just now appear to want to do as little editing as possible. I would also like words to replace page numbers and they won’t be happy with that either, which is a shame because I have the four sequences ready and I see them as part of the same book and I always planned them to be. I have worked on other sequences over the last ten years or so but Cowpit Yowe was different. It was an explosion of concrete forms; nothing else. So for three or four months I was writing nothing but strange looking poems. I felt my mind had to be in a certain place.
AR: A different mode of thinking?
JC: Yes I think so
AR: Would you call it a more visual mode of thinking?
JC: I think it is more visual. A lot of the poetry I write is visual: I’m painting scenes and telling stories. It’s just taking it that bit further. I’ve always enjoyed going to galleries, and paintings. So there is something about the look of it, and how it is on the page. I mean, in terms of the collection this poem was another catalyst [shows ‘The Honest Farmer’s Declaration’]. The original of this poem I came across it in a book that Tom Leonard edited called Radical Renfrew. The poem was first printed in 1853, and if you think about the logistics of the printing techniques of the time, it is quite incredible to think it was an anonymous farmer who was making his point in this form. Why did he think this would make a difference to the way people thought about the issue he was raising – the issue being a defence against allegations of malpractice around potato compensation: ‘we canna want the rot – it pays the rent’. An 1850s Scottish farmer – where did that come into his head? He’s not like me, responding to some existing forms, he’s come up with that off his own back. This was somebody trying to make a point about farming. At the very least I wanted to respond to that poem. I also wanted to explore other aspects of agricultural language and I found that I wasn’t happy with some of the more traditional poems I was bringing out on that theme.
AR: Yes, that poem is amazing, isn’t it? Because it’s not urban, and not modernist. Its form is coming, apparently, from nowhere.
JC: And anonymous. To typeset it, to put in a printed form, in the 1850s was a mammoth task. You’d have to get it completely right first time. I really like it, because it’s got a look about it, even if you can’t read it. It must’ve stuck out amazingly in the 1850s. There’s no indication that he ever did another one.
AR: I noticed the impulse to pattern in ‘Family Portrait’ right at the beginning of Bovine Pastoral, because one reads, whatever it is, ten or twelve lines, and it seems like an ordinary lyric and then it goes in reverse, and I thought that was an interesting move because in a sense it didn’t have to do that. It was a surprise, but then it suddenly acquires a pattern and this pattern acquires some sort of symbolic meaning.
JC: Yes, the second half is a mirror image with the one non repeated middle line. As you’ve said, I think as you read it through, you are experiencing it differently in the second half. Mixing up what the words are saying. If you look at some of Edwin Morgan’s stuff, he is changing the position of words or letters, like in ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’. He’s just playing with sounds and words, but you are going through some sort of journey. I think ‘Family Portrait’ is a journey. It was a real pain to finish once I decided to do that, because you have to make sure the words and lines can make sense both ways, and talk to each other. In the end the poem looks at how your experience actually makes you reinterpret material you thought you understood. It’s a different poem from what it looked like it was going to be.
AR: It suggests lots of ideas like going back into the past and then coming forward to the future, and memory and pattern.
JC: Yes I’ve written a number of poems about various eras from the present day back to my childhood and further back to my father’s childhood trying to capture the decline in the local agricultural community. I also have poems that are less serious. For example I get people to read this one out and tell them it is a Latin chant – ‘rumen, rumen, rumen, reticulum’ etc. – and they join in and enjoy it and then I explain it is made up of the scientific names for the four stomachs of a cow
AR: It sounds like a bit of the Latin dictionary, doesn’t it?
JC: It’s a lovely sound and it’s a bit of fun, and it’s the same with ‘Rare Cross Breeds’, which gets more and more angry. The animals listed are all rare breeds in danger of dying out whether they are pigs, sheep, goats or cattle, and it hopefully makes that point. I have written a number of angry poems, none of which have been successful, and then I move from that initial outburst normally to writing another better poem. So it’s more cathartic to get something off my chest. The milk price goes down again – ARRGH!. Knee-jerk response in verse which I throw immediately in the bin, because it’s not a good poem, it’s just me getting angry, whereas you want to be less polemic, capturing from different angles the experiences of those working and living in the country as a celebration of something that is current and relevant and now – it is not meant to be sentimental. It is meant to be warts and all, but something that has a value and has a voice – it’s trying to find that. There is also something about reinventing the pastoral. In my opinion there has been far too much twee pastoral poetry for centuries, and some of the visual poems, for example, could be a way of reinventing the genre responding to what might be seen as the start of the pastoral in some of the classical poets. I also think there is a lot in my poetry that could comment on wider issues, outwith what might be seen as specific or rural locality, moving from the local to the universal.
AR: I wondered with Baxter’s Old Ram whether there’s a universalising impulse, because bringing in the Blues brings in the other side of the Atlantic, and yet it’s very much within that specific rural and agricultural context.
JC: I think it is. I’m a great music fan, and as this idea was emerging and once I’d made my mind up that the sheep was going to sing, it felt right that it should sing the Blues. And once that happened, it opened up everything else. I think that people have been told so often about the decline in farming, and different aspects of it, I felt there have to be different approaches to take, and story-telling is one of them. With the likes of Henryson and others, there is some Scottish precedent for using fables, and it’s just building on that. It is however unusual to read a new fable rather than one of the traditional ones. Again, this fable has appealed to people who are not necessarily attracted by any of my other work. It can stand on it’s own, and it’s got wonderful illustrations from Barbara Robertson. I’d love to give it more exposure and would be quite happy to post a whole poem somewhere just to have the story read by a wider audience. Maybe I have to think about ways of doing it. I have a poster edition of it, that can be put up in local community halls, just page by page, and I was exploring something last week, relating to placing it on a website. There are some software packages, where it looks like the page has been turned and I thought if someone could just virtually turn the pages that might encourage them to read the poem in its entirety. If the whole point is trying to get messages across then the challenge is how to give as many people as possible the opportunity to read it.
AR: You could have a web-mounted version of it.
JC. Yes, that would be lovely. And the images here appeal to a lot of people. The first version I drafted was on a single page with no illustrations, but this final version was a hundred times better. It slows the reader up with the story being over a number of pages, instead of just one. As the illustrations started to arrive I was changing my mind on which words would appear opposite them. This led eventually to breaking the verses up, so that for example the largest illustration is matched with just one line – ‘On Blue Thursday half a million came’. So the illustrations did make me sort of re-think some of the lines. I do work with other artists, and it’s great fun. It just stretches me out of my comfort zone. I’m doing some work with a sculptor just now and again it has developed my understanding of the potential of combining poetry with other art forms.
AR: I saw that mentioned as a current project.
JC: They’re trying to bring a piece of public art to Cumbernauld, and I’ll probably provide some words on the body of it, that people will only see if they come up close and most people will view the main sculpture from the motorway. Again it’s about perspectives
AR: So it’ll be a big sculpture?
JC: Oh yes, I think it it’ll be about 10 metres high and will be something you can see on the Cumbernauld-Stirling road. I’m really excited by it . Again it’s how the words and form come together that appeals.
AR: Is the theme settled?
JC: Well, they’re looking at a female figure with her hands raised up and symbolised water flowing out of them and Cumbernauld has a watershed, so there’s a stream that goes all the way into the Clyde to the west, and a stream that goes all the way into the Forth, I think, on the east. So I am exploring that idea. It’s also about community, so it’s not a hundred miles away from what I’m thinking about with Cowpit Yowe. I suppose the one thing I would say is, once I finished the sequence, which was a couple of years ago, I didn’t immediately write any more. Then I was in France in September-October of this year writing, and I started working on a new sequence related to something completely different: classic jazz albums of the 1959, and that set me off on something new, again an exploration of form but this time musical form. 1959 was seen as a revolutionary year in jazz, when a number of albums started to challenge what might be seen as the normal formats. The poem ‘Modal Man’ was created from the letters of the word ‘Modal’. Another poem I hope will take the form of a spiral using a quote from Miles Davis, and another ‘Shaking up the Rigid Rules of Bebop’ will have a very distinctive shape and challenges the idea of restrictive form. This planned sequence again has got some more traditional found poems in the mix as well. In ‘Desmond’s Signature’ I used ‘Take Five’, which has a very distinctive musical signature and took it from there. In ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ I have attempted to release the words, introduce more space, like the freeing up the jazz, but still it can be read: ‘alto sax, trumpet, bass’. The four key jazz albums that I have responded to are Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come, there a Charles Mingus’s album, and Dave Brubeck.
AR: There was a good BBC documentary on those, wasn’t there?
JC: Yes, that provided a good starting point. There is something about that time, it’s a time where there were a lot of tensions around race in America, and some of the poems deal with that.
AR: So you’re sticking to that year?
JC: Yes, 1959. I don’t know what I’ll do with it, whether it will go anywhere. It almost jumped on me, without me deciding that ‘I’m going to do something like this’. It felt like the visual poetry was the most effective response, rather than more conventional poetry forms. When you think about a lot of the poets in here [The Order of Things], they’re writing other stuff too, this is just one element of their work.
AR: In some ways the cross-over between different art forms seems to be quite important for you?
JC: I think it’s about getting out of your comfort zone. I like the idea of being excited by a new experience . I’ve run workshops on the experimental poetry, or innovative poetry, and some people really struggle, but others get right into it, it’s just fun. We’re not saying that you have to write from left to right, or go down the page. I like to walk around the corner, and give some more options, give some different places to take it and that’s particularly useful. It can help writers who are in a creative rut, and it can help kick start something new. Each poem might have a role to play itself, but it might unlock something else.
AR: And it takes you away from a particular voice, doesn’t it, and gives you another?
JC: It can give you a range of voices, but it still could be your voice. In some cases it might be truer to your own voice, because some people think ‘this is what poetry should be’, and you’re trying to break up that assumption, and ask what it could be, what you want it to be. I ran a workshop recently, and asked the participants ‘what’s your favourite word?’ So people picked their ten favourite words, and we had somebody from the Punjab read out her list. Her favourite words were Indian and Italian words, like ‘spaghetti’, ‘lasagne’, ‘tikka’, and ‘masala’. Once she wrote the words together, they were wonderful sounds and they spoke to each other. All you’ve said is ‘what words do you like, and why do you like them?’ and ‘what is it about the sound?’ There’s something more to it than straight interpretation. Take the words out of context and put them in a different space or even take them off the page to see what they look like on a wall.
AR: Yes, I was going to ask you about the poems from Cowpit Yowe that were shown at the Stanza Festival in St Andrews, in poster form, because I felt they worked very well, and came half way to being visual artworks.
JC: I think so. They were all shown in the Tramway first. One of the staff approached me after they had come across a copy of Cowpit Yowe and said they thought some of the poems could be used as part of an exhibition, and I had never thought about that. They said they would take the ones that were more visual, and frame them for an exhibition. I said great, and it was amazing. They also took the rare cross-breeds poem and they put it down two floors of a staircase, straight onto the wall, and that was great too. You were just walking up the words. There’s an opportunity to confront or challenge people with something that unexpected. Obviously Ian Hamilton Finlay was always thinking about words being an art work. Little Sparta is an art work, it’s an open air gallery, it’s not just a garden.
AR: One thing we’ve been trying to study is how people look at space and patterns in poetry, and if you see it large on the wall, it pushes you to see the pattern first, doesn’t it? So with work like that, you perhaps do actually look at the space, before you look at the words, as opposed to looking at the words then the space.
JC: I think so, I mean, there were a couple of photographs taken at the exhibition a bit further away and you can’t see the words at all, you just see the shapes, and the arrangements, and hopefully it attracts you to go closer.
AR: You get a dual perspective then, don’t you? You get the reading and the looking?
JC: As soon as you go close enough to read it. So there’s definitely a difference in having it up on the wall.
AR: And perhaps one approaches it differently, because one approaches it with the mindset of a gallery rather than the mindset of a book?
JC: And if you’re looking at a painting, you’re not looking at horizontal lines. You’re attracted into certainly looking at space, you’re drawn in. Some of these draw you into a certain space. So people are maybe a bit more open in a gallery to that type of approach.
AR: There’s a strange way that people seem to be more open to experimentalism in art rather than in poetry. In the sense that most people have heard of Damien Hirst, hate him or love him, whereas taste in poetry seem to be more traditional. People expect poetry to be more traditional.
JC: It’s maybe the profile. Some of the more extreme stuff doesn’t really get read. It’s hard work, and it’s never going to attract a big audience. It doesn’t mean it’s not valid, but it is a bit of a challenge. Some people who rarely read poetry want something straight forward linear ending up with a punch line or ‘right answer’ Whereas a lot of poetry doesn’t say there is the right answer – it gives that freedom for readers to interpret much more than, say, a novel – that’s true of art as well, art is about looking at something not reading the description of what you’re supposed to see, but finding your own way through it. Some people are much more comfortable with ‘I don’t know what the right answer is then’. Whereas others want to say ‘that’s the start, and that’s the finish and I know what the journey was, and why the journey was taken. I’ve not had to think, there’s not too much ambiguity’. A lot of the stuff I write is very clear, I want the readers to not have any barriers to reading it the first time, but to get more out of it from reading it a second time. But that’s not the case of all poets. Some poets are very comfortable with the dense nature of their work. That’s what they want to write. In a lot of my poetry, I’m very keen to tell a story. The idea that I was putting people off from listening to the story would disappoint me. I want them to go away and get some of it first, and for most of them, I would like them to get it if I read it to them. The more people that read it, or the more people that listen to it, the better. Maybe that’s what was interesting about the more visual ones. Even though I can see people scratching their heads, I still want them to get it. If they don’t get something, or make some connection with it, then what’s the point? It wasn’t done as a tricksy thing. A lot of the poems are about subjects that are important: language, or generations, you know, there’s one in Cowpit Yowe that talks about educating the farm boy, which is about the challenges a lot of country children from agricultural backgrounds face because they are liable to hereditary dyslexia, and are more likely to work in manual jobs in the country because they struggled academically with dyslexia. There is thought to be a much higher prevalence of it in rural communities. Now again it’s this idea of language that is important, and maybe there is a barrier there and trying to get that there’s different ways of learning. The way that people learn from generation to generation, rather than through books and school. And that’s a different way, and a different community. So if you dismantle the passing on of experience, then you’re losing that experience. You’re losing that built-on momentum. Your cattle breeding programme could have been built up over two hundred years. So if you get rid of your herd, you’ve got rid of not just that generation of animals, but generations of breeding. If you lose one generation of farmers, sons or daughters of farmers, then you’ve lost centuries of what they built up through experience passed on, and built up and improved. So it’s not just a matter of replacing next year, if something happens. It’s much more severe, and it’s trying to get some of that over. Here’s the pattern for centuries and the pattern could stop, so the pattern with the poems themselves is important.
AR: Do you think the lack of understanding of farming is getting worse or is it being helped? Is there anything that is helping?
JC: Not really, though there is some interest in what might be seen as organic farming, As far as dairy farming is concerned I don’t think many people are aware of the abuse that’s taking place of small suppliers by large supermarkets or they’re apathetic. The only chance the farmers have I think is if consumers or shoppers decide that, in a fair trade way, paying farmers less for their milk than it costs to produce is not right. You know there’s a lot of interest in fair trade. This is a fair trade issue in the UK. Shoppers shouldn’t pay any more for their milk, but they should question the way that the money has been split. The farmers are losing money, while the middle man is making a fair bit, and the top person is making a whole lot. They can’t stop milking cows until they get the right price for it. The cows milk every day. The supermarkets are using that, and abusing that. It’s got to the point that they are actually importing milk. For Scotland that’s appalling, it’s crazy. There can be certain things you can do with cheese for example, but not milk. You can hold cheese back for a bit but milk – no. If that’s the case and there are other industries which are the same , you have to have some sort of safeguard against that kind of abuse, which is based on the fact that they know you can’t give the milk to anyone else. It has to be in the supermarkets within a day. It’s a tough one, it has been getting worse. In Bovine Pastoral, there’s a statistic about the declining number of dairy farmers left in Scotland. It’s a lot less now, but it’s been an issue that has been raised for decades. It’s not a new issue, it has just never been addressed by consecutive governments or the retailers themselves. It’s not going to change easily, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. Unless the government changes it, I don’t know how you would get shoppers to be a bit more militant, which would be helpful. They might automatically think it would lead to an increase in cost or something, but that’s the group we need to be more involved. That’s who the supermarkets listen to. Supermarkets are getting stronger every single year.
AR: It’s strange that shoppers don’t realise the power they do have. When there was the panic in relation to GM crops, rightly or wrongly, it more or less killed them in the UK for ten years, just because shoppers wouldn’t buy them.
JC: I think they potentially have a very strong voice, it’s just how they would use it. You get questions about whether it’s a free-range chicken. Now they’re having to provide free-range options, because people are asking ‘is this free-range or not?’. And shoppers asking whether it’s all organic. The fair trade mark suggests a fairness in the system.. There might be some things in that, but just now, it’s not easy to see where the change would come. So I’ll just have to keep on writing.
AR: One of the reviews commented on the history and traditions of farming in your work, and perhaps readers who didn’t have direct experience of them might get some sense of those traditions by the work. How much do you think it’s possible to do that with poetry? Because it’s obviously partly mediated through people’s experience of the literary, and yet it does tell them things.
JC I was watching a history of Scotland and there were talking about Walter Scott. Now he was creating part history part myths, and people started to take them in and that was what the Highlands were to them. I think the problem with poetry specifically is that it’s probably not read enough to make a difference, but if you were thinking about a wider readership, if, say, I don’t know, Baxter’s Old Ram was something free that dropped out of the Sunday Herald, because it’s free some more people would probably read it. There are probably other ways of doing it. The poetry is not about making money, it’s there to make a point, and I think that there’s two audiences for my work. When I read in rural Renfrewshire, and a whole load of farmers come along, they get everything, and if they make a comment they probably make a comment on some sort of animal husbandry issue, such as ‘that’s not exactly how I would’ve done this, or that’. When you come to an urban audience – they’re still getting it, but in a different way. There’s not been a great tradition of agricultural verse, since Burns. He has cast a major shadow in which new agricultural verse in Scotland has struggled to grow, instead there’s been a lot of poor Burns imitations. Whereas in Ireland a number of poets are farmer’s sons, and they have always able to make a very strong connection with their rural roots and have been respected for it. I have been described as ‘Scotland’s leading rural poet’. And not one person has come up and said ‘No, you’re not’. That’s not because of the quality of my verse but because there isn’t anyone else. There isn’t any major agricultural rural voice out there plugging away at this or that.
AR: It’s strange isn’t it, when you think of Heaney and even Muldoon?
JC: I’ve enjoyed Heaney’s stuff and especially early Kavanagh. My copy of Kavanagh’s selected poems fell apart before Heaney’s, when I read them. It has its flaws, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there, and it has a lived-in feel to it. You know, Heaney by the time he was reflecting on it, was away, so he was reflecting on childhood, not far removed, but one stage removed, whereas for a while Kavanagh was still there. He wanted to be away, but he was still sitting in the house, and responding to what was happening around him. It’s just a bit closer. Earlier than that I enjoyed R.S. Thomas.
AR: Yes, he came to mind with one or two of your poems about farm life.
JC: It’s strange because, on reflection, he has a distance between him and the farmers, a slightly colder distance. He doesn’t seem to have as much empathy when I go back and examine his work, now. I still love the stuff, I still love the description, but it was just this idea of the Welsh peasant, there’s something about it now: the detail is still there, but I’m not sure if he’s playing with an element of stereotype.
AR: Yes, I went back to that book, that poem rather, and it was a shock when I saw it was called ‘The Peasant’. I had forgotten the title, though I’d remembered the poem. Even that title seems to create a slight distance.
JC: It does put a distance in. I’ve heard him read the stuff on CD, and I’ve written a short poem about him. It explores the idea of how the nearness to God equates or doesn’t with the closeness to man. He is still an observer of the agricultural community rather than being part of it. The peasant, even the way he says it, the noble peasant.
AR: Like the noble savage idea?
JC: Yes. I read his stuff earlier than Kavanagh and Heaney and there’s a lot of stuff I liked in it, it felt real. When I think of pastoral poetry I often think of rural poets of the English countryside. There wasn’t much grit there, nor in a lot of what has been written in Scotland on the subject: I went for a nice walk in the country, and saw this and that, and went back home. There’s not enough ‘lived in’ experience.
AR: The stanzas on the birthday of Burns have a nice ironic swipe at a certain sort of construction of Scottishness. Do you find that, being known as a rural poet from western Scotland, you find Burns is a slight burden?
JC: Well, ‘The Burns Competition’ tries to convey the alienation I felt from Burns or more correctly the language of Burns. Reciting his words for me as a six-year-old was hard work. It was uncomfortable. I just didn’t have very much Scots in my vocabulary. I recently finished a Scots sonnet and that’s one of the few poems I’ve written in Scots. There are a lot of Scots words that get into my poems because they’re part of my everyday speech, but there’s definitely a struggle for me reading and listening to the Scots language. Now that wouldn’t have been true of my mother. She would’ve been able to understand Scots more, coming from rural Ayrshire. I’ve got a friend who writes in Scots all the time. It’s very natural and wonderful, but the language itself is changing. I think the challenge with Burns is he is both man and myth. I was taking to someone the other day, it was just a typical farmer thing. He was talking about Burns’s father’s farm, which Burns took over, but didn’t make the most of, although it was good ground. He was criticising Burns’s abilities as a farmer. It was really funny: he was saying, ‘I know his poetry is okay, but he really wasn’t much of a farmer’. He didn’t want to be a farmer. He wanted to be something else.
AR: And Burns was sentimentalised by the Edinburgh literary elite, wasn’t he?
JC: Yes and labelled ‘The Ploughman Poet’. Only fifty percent of my poetry is rural, so to be labelled a rural poet can frustrate me, but the rural poems remain the ones most likely to be published in magazines and anthologies.
AR: Why do you think that that is? Because it’s very distinctive?
JC: Possibly – and I am still writing rural poems, but there’s also the sequence on jazz, and another group of non-rural stuff. It will be interesting to see if any of it ends up being a book, because if a non rural sequence was published it might help change the situation.
AR: Maybe the anger will still come through, even though you say they’re not angry poems, the anger is still there isn’t it?
JC: Yes in the other poems there is still a lot of anger about our relationship with the planet, and you know it’s not that they aren’t fuelled by the same passion I have, just that they’re written from different voices, and perspectives. So they’re much more varied in that sort of sense. I went to a writer’s group about seven or eight years ago, and you were to bring a poem on the first night, and I brought one in and it was about farming, and it was probably about a cow or something. You were given a task: bring in another poem for the second week and I brought in another one about farming, and the guy beside me was saying ‘well that’s you done the farming thing, what are you going to do next week?’ And I am still doing the farming thing. Even now, what I’m finding is that this local arena is an environment where I can explore other issues. One of my recent poems looks at domestic abuse in a rural scene. Another one I wrote recently is called ‘Not Missing Michael Jackson’ and it explores our obsession with celebrity comparing his funeral with that of a local farmer. Now that there’s an arena, which I’m comfortable with it in terms of how I locate the local, I feel I can explore other themes from there. When I was in France on a six-week writing fellowship I got some space to write on a range of other topics, but there was still the odd rural poem,
so the rural is still there. I want to eventually have a body of work, that has effectively captured the lives and landscape of the local agricultural community no matter how long it