This week, Rob‘s in The Bahamas with me, Scavella, aka Nicolette Bethel. He hasn’t picked the best day for it — the birds are singing, they always do, but it’s overcast and going to pour. Still, the nice thing about rain in the sub-tropics (which isn’t like rain in Scotland, which I experienced one chilly day in Edinburgh on my way back from a conference in St. Andrews round the turn of the century) is that it’s drama at its best. And it’s warm. So hold on for flood warnings and steam baths.
Scavella: Rob, you and I “met” at an online poetry workshop, the Poetry Free-for-All, where we’re both currently moderators. Over the years the community as a whole has discussed the role of online workshopping in the writing of poems. Share some of your thoughts on the online workshop and the writing process (yours in particular) with us.
Rob: I had published a few poems in UK magazines and had then moved to Italy when I first discovered PFFA around 2002. I liked two things about it – a) the criticism was fierce and honest, and b) some people there clearly knew a thing or two about poetry. I wasn’t there to play about or have my ego stroked. I learned a lot about craft, structure, concision, and form. Because online workshops are international, I also picked up plenty of information on poets unfamiliar to me at the time, especially Americans.
However, workshops have their limitations. There is a tendency for members to transform what should be loose principles into binding rules. This isn’t necessarily a problem if you are fully aware that it’s happening. I read loads of poetry and knew that much of it didn’t conform to the workshop norms. I’ve heard editors say that they can instantly recognise a ‘workshop poem’ – by this, they mean a well crafted, perfectly formed poem, often a description or linear narrative, which sends them instantly to sleep. It’s a caricature, but they have a point. A good poem is always more than good craft. It’s either got to take a reader by the throat or sneak up quietly on him/her and deposit its surprise. A good poem may contain the shock of sudden recognition or put into words what previously had been felt but left unspoken. A good poem might leave a reader feeling haunted in some way, intellectually or emotionally. Craft, in itself, isn’t enough.
So, I feel I benefited greatly from the online workshop experience, but I had to use the best of what I’d learned to fashion something more idiosyncratic, and that’s not something a workshop or creative writing class can teach anyone. In fact, I’m not even sure I can explain how it happens. Of the poems in the book, I think only four went through a workshop process. However, I continue to act as a moderator at PFFA. It’s good to see people improving their poetic skills and to play a small part in helping that process. Ultimately, what people get out of a workshop will be proportionate to how much they put in.
Scavella: I firmly believe, and have said often enough, that the internet and digital communication are inspiring a literary renaissance. Thanks to the internet, more people are reading and writing more literary works than they have been in past forty years or more; the internet has played a large part in rescuing poetry in particular from academia. What is your take on the subject?
Rob: I have a slightly different take on that, probably because I’m from the UK where universities and chapbook-publication-competitions haven’t determined who breaks onto the poetic scene (and who doesn’t) to the extent they have in the USA, although things are moving inexorably in that direction. The Internet has meant that millions of people who would never have had their poems published before have been able to publish on blogs and webzines. This is all fine, as far as I’m concerned. More people are writing (whether more people are reading is unclear to me), but I don’t think this will lead to a corresponding increase in significant writers.
Theoretically, the Internet should mean that writers can bypass traditional publishers and get their work out to large audiences. In practice, I think that most of the best writers you’ll find on the Web also have books out, or will have in time. There are exceptions, but they are few. I don’t see that changing either, although ‘books’ may become ‘e-books’ as technology for e-readers improves and prices fall. However, the Web does help writers to reach audiences they wouldn’t have been able to reach before. I wouldn’t have read your stuff if it hadn’t been for the Internet… It’s also great to have audio and video of poets from all over the world.
The standard of poems in webzines is pretty much the same as in paper magazines. The advent of email submissions has meant that readers can find poems from all over the world in the same zine, which is a very good thing. The best zines are few in number, there are a vast number of mediocre ones, and also many awful ones. In the UK, I can see most literary mags going entirely online over the next decade.
Scavella: If you had to, which three poems from The Opposite of Cabbage would you choose to highlight particularly and why?
Rob: Three poems? That’s a hard one. Off the top of my head then…
- Moving On – I have my doubts that this poem will be anyone’s favourite from the book, but it felt like the beginning of a shift up a gear for me. The humour, the narrative leaps, the absurd images, and the way it never really goes where you think it’s going to go (I hope) combine to make it one of my favourites.
- Glory Box – it’s a love poem, it’s funny, it throws theology, trip-hop (the title and a couple of phrases in the poem reference this song by the band, Portishead), bouncy castles, self-flagellation, Italian food, and marriage into the mix and still manages to remain somewhat coherent. (You can hear Rob reading “Glory Box” here.)
- Sky Blue – this poem is a poem of a 21st century everyman and yet feels quite personal. Its theme is the difficulty of knowing oneself when bombarded constantly with stuff – knowledge, news, products – so much of it competing for attention. How does anyone know what to choose any more? How does anyone know how to feel? And yet the ‘I’ of the poem, who is both puzzling and apparent, keeps walking, keeps trying to choose. (You can hear Rob reading “Sky Blue” here.)
Scavella: What’s next in the world of Rob Mackenzie’s poetry? Where do you go from here?
Rob: I don’t really know. I’m doing what I can to support The Opposite of Cabbage, so that Salt, my excellent publishers, don’t make a loss out of it. I hope this tour will encourage at least a few people to buy the book. I’ve also been writing new material, which may come together in a future collection. Some of these poems are in the third-person, from the point-of-view of an invented character. Some take place at night and are quite odd, unpunctuated and intense. There’s a third disparate group of poems. When I will have enough poems to form a good book is anyone’s guess. I plan to do more readings over the next year or two, if anyone will have me. I enjoy that, but my main focus is on writing as well as I can – whatever happens.
Biographical note: Rob A. Mackenzie was born in Glasgow. He studied law and then abandoned the possibility of significant personal wealth by switching to theology. He spent a year in Seoul, eight years in Lanarkshire, five years in Turin, and now lives in Edinburgh where he organises the Poetry at the Great Grog reading series. His pamphlet collection, The Clown of Natural Sorrow (sold out — available only from the author, if you’re lucky), was published by HappenStance Press in 2005 and he blogs at Surroundings.
Rob Mackenzie’s The Opposite of Cabbage can be bought from Salt Publishing, and if you buy it or any other book from them this month, you can get 33% off by using the code G3SRT453.
Oh, and if you’re still dithering about making the purchase, you can read its latest review, by Barbara Smith, here.