Saturday, July 18, 2009

Opposite of Cabbage

I am really pleased to be hosting a further stage of Rob A Mackenzie's Decabbage Yourself Logo Tour , which this week wends its way back to Scotland.

I, like many people I'm sure, am just astounded at what Rob manages to pack into life. He is the living, breathing proof of the old adage, "if you want something done ask a busy person".

Rob 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 2005His 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's collection The Opposite of Cabbage is published by Salt Publishing (and available from Amazon on this embedded link)

"In this collection, opposites collide – reality and delusion, political activism and apathy, friend and enemy, life and death. These poems cut away at convention and simmer with unsettling, dramatic images. Ironic and humorous, complex and engaging, you can’t do without The Opposite of Cabbage."

One of my favourite poems in the book is My Dentist, Aneila, which to me reads like a mini multi-textured novel about the Scotland that we now all inhabit, a place were the old and the new truly rub up against each other, with surprising and often refreshing results for all concerned.

And so to my questions for Rob.

Scotland and Edinburgh feature heavily in your work, either as backdrop or the main character. You have also lived abroad for extended spells, so with the experience of both do you consider that your poetry to be at its most successful when drawing on home ground?

Not really. I wrote a series of poems about Scotland in (I think) 2007, about 15 months after returning home from 5 years in Italy. I felt keen to explore issues of Scottish identity, nationality and nationhood after living within a very different culture. I had asked myself many questions about Scottishness while living in Turin and these intensified when I came back. Quite a few of these poems made the cut for the book and I wrote others over 2008 as well.

However, I hope these poems have appeal to readers beyond Scotland. Their themes are prejudice, hedonism, roots, relationships with neighbours, core identity – themes which are important in virtually any part of the world. So while these poems are concerned with a specific time and place, they aren’t constrained by that. At least, that’s the general idea.

I’ve also written about other places, especially Italy, and several poems touch on the USA, a country I have never visited but which casts its shadow – in both positive and negative ways – over us all.

I am the daughter in law of a Church of Scotland Minister, and have seen the demands of the Ministry at first hand. Poet and Minister both have public faces, is there ever any tension in this for you?

Many people have asked similar questions during this Cyclone tour, but each questioner has asked it with a particular slant and your slant is very interesting.

There is a great tradition of poets who were also priests or ministers. Some of them have saved the certainties for their sermons and kept the questioning for their poems. Others have used poetry as a way of grasping at the sublime while leading tortured inner lives. But most poet-minister/priests have combined all of these – certainties, questions, spiritual quest and turmoil – in both sermons and poems.

I fall within that latter category, although not many of the more obviously religious poems made the cut for my book. They just didn’t feel good enough. However, the book is awash with religious references for any one who cares to spot them. I also don’t divide life into religious and non-religious spheres. For me, there is no clear dividing line. In the book, a poem about an Italian leader (‘Berlusconi and the National Grid’) can be as religious as a poem about a minister’s sermons (‘The Preacher’s Ear’), and the latter can be every bit as political.

Despite this, (and I perhaps now contradict myself), I tend to compartmentalise my life. I don’t read my poems to my congregation (for which they are no doubt extremely grateful) and my poems rarely, if ever, sermonize. However, there are many common elements between my poems and sermons as they both deal with matters that are important to me. Inevitably there is a great deal of crossover. The problem with my job is that it saps my creative energy and doesn’t allow me enough time to write poetry, but I guess people in a great many jobs would feel that.

One comment on the collection suggests that these poems are tougher and bleaker than your previous work. Is this a sentiment you agree with and were you conscious of this shift when putting the collection together?

I think it’s a fair comment, yes, and I did feel that was the case. In fact, I was delighted to get that comment. The toughness and the bleakness have to go together. If the collection were only bleak, then it would be thoroughly depressing, but I hope it’s not depressing at all. There is a great deal of black humour running through it. More than that, I tried to be honest in what I wrote, to stand up to the bleakness and, at times, to expose it behind whatever glitzy façade it puts on.

I try to avoid being needlessly portentous. I never want to give fake hope or shirk the vital questions because that’s the last thing anyone needs, but I do want to show glimpses of what it means to be fully alive and authentically human in circumstances that are often difficult, complex and even tragic. I’d like my poems to make people laugh and cry or do both at the same time.

Thanks for these answers Rob, I particularly enjoyed the one on the public face of being a Minister and poet, as you say it is one with a long and fascinating tradition.

All the best with the rest of the tour and continued success with the book!


Blogger Pat said...

Oh dear - another book I want to read. You do make him and his work sound very appealing. Thanks. I think:)

3:45 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

PI, you won't regret it if you do get it. Good questions, A, and good answers from Rob as well.

5:55 pm  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

Oh thank you for this - I was just tussling with this very question (the public religious melding with the inner ... for want of a better definition in a quick comment ) and this has shed some light. I must try and get hold of this book - but it will have to be after we get back from Japan in Oct. as we're on a bit of a tight budget for a while. But it's definitely ON MY LIST!

5:53 am  
Blogger Pam said...

great questions Anna. Illuminates his work, which I know mainly through his blog. Now I'm very curious to read more.

2:57 pm  
Blogger apprentice said...

Thanks all - I'm sure Rob will be grateful for your interest, and the goegraphic spread of it.

K I'm not a member of a religious faith, although I'm part of a family where some members have a strong belief. Transtromer took a lot of stick for being religious in a very secular 1960s Sweden and said:

"I look on existence as a great mystery and that at times, at certain moments, this mystery carries a strong charge, so that it does have a religious character, and it is often in such context that I write"

I think that is how I'm am now trying to view things, but I still struggle with the idea of organised religion, although I can see how some people take great comfort and strength from it.

10:59 am  
Blogger Rob said...

Yes, thanks everyone. I have sympathy with both of you, Pl and Kay, as I also have a reading wish-list which is about a mile long and I keep finding more stuff I feel I simply must read

Anna, I am a big fan of Tomas Transtromer (even though my stuff is completely different from his). He has an uncanny ability to reach into the essence of things and reveal it in few deftly chosen words. He discovers meaning and significance in landscape and action without imposing it. And he is a master of metaphor. Someone to learn from...

Thanks for hosting me on this stage of the tour.

12:00 pm  
Blogger apprentice said...

My pleasure Rob, my stats show we've had quite a few lurkers too.

I'm sure Barbara will do you proud next week too.

12:23 pm  

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