Beyond Identity: New Horizons in Modern Scottish Poetry by Attila Dosa...
Published, 1 December 2009 by Editions Rodopi B.V
When and how did you start writing poetry?
Curiously, I didn’t attempt to write poetry till I was about 19. I’d been a reading school-child (though more prose than poetry) but having become alienated by the choices school had forced upon me, I read virtually nothing for about three years from the time I left schoool, at 16. I think I always read newspapers, but became more interested in art, so began to read books about contemporary artists. Eventually, having decided I wasn’t going to be good enough to be a professional artist, I turned to words as words. The books that renewed my interest in literature were Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”, Samuel Beckett’s “Malone Dies” and later, a selection of Dylan Thomas’s poems. Thomas may have provided the welcome mat, but I found my doorway into poetry in general by scouring every anthology, particularly of contemporary Scottish poetry, that I could find. But also, discovering the poetry of Yeats and Hardy, then being introduced by an evening class tutor to Wilfred Owen, gave me a sense of what I can only call some kind of literary “kinships”I think there’s something of the Celt in Hardy, and in Owen, even beyond his Brythonic name, and Yeats, of course, was full of it - despite his Anglo roots. Thomas was the son of a Welsh-speaker who wrote poems in his own language but did not pass it on to his offspring; the fact that Dylan must have heard his father’s verse seems obvious from the way he uses language, both tonally and rhythmically.
Could you talk about your influences? How much have these influences changed over the years?
There’a a sense in which we are influenced by everything we read, so that the process of change is continuing and ultimately unquantifiable. The way Thomas, Hardy, Yeats and Owen use their linguistic and prosodic skills has always remained significant to me. Then, in the English tradition, people like Basil Bunting ans WS Graham (an exiled Scot): in Scotland itself, Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith and George MacKay Brown spoke a language I felt at home with, partly because they inhabited a landscape I recognised. I was in my mid-twenties before the Gaelic poets came to my attention, while attending evening classes in Glasgow. My education until then had left me with the impression that no serious Gaelic poetry had been written since the early 19th Century. Discovering Maclean, Thomson Hay and MacAulay and learning that Crichton Smith was also a Gaelic poet hugely excited me, and provided then impetus for me to start writing in Gaelic - all my efforts at poetry till that time had been in English.
At Glasgow University, poet and English lecturer Philip Hobsbaum’s reaction to a batch of poems I’d given him to comment on alerted me to the value of personal experience and close observation as sources for creative material - that something so “everyday” as one’s own experience and environment can be drawn on for poetry is not necessarily obvious to the inexperienced writer. Through Hobsbaum I would also become aware of my contemporaries, particularly Tom Leonard, whose poems in Glasgow dialect were causing quite a stir. Through Tom I got to know Tom McGrath, an enthusiast for the Black Mountain school of poetry, which led me to Gary Snyder and William Carlos Williams, among others. At McGrath’s house I also met Alan Spence, whose enthusiasms led my (as Snyder might) to Japanese poetry.
Do you ever feel overpowered by your great 20th century predecessors like MacLean or Thomson?
Derick Thomson was my professor in Celtic Studies at Glasgow University. At the personal level he came across as extremely reserved, but his poetry, like that of Crichton Smith, has a contemporary informality when compared with the lyric intensities of MacLean’s work. I’d say that, for younger Gaelic poets, these poets provided a firm ground on which to build, and from which to seek out new directions, rather than as any kind of barrier.
Are there any non-Gaelic influences that you hold important for your own work? I think your work has been compared with the poetry of Norman MacCaig, for instance…
Apart from those already mentioned, I’d count the great Haiku masters, Basho, Issa, etc, but, as key influences on the way I see poetry, I have to nominate, particulary, two very different poets; the Chilean Pablo Neruda and Czech Miroslav Holub. I love Neruda’s bright opulence and Holub’s vivid economy with an equal passion. Hugh Macdiarmid’s early lyrics are wonderful examples of an apparently contradictory, but highly characteristic, ability to accommodate a “quart in a pint pot”: these are exquisite gems, explosive with creative energy. MacCaig used to say that he derived his use of imagery from the way his mother, a native Gaelic speaker from the Isle of Harris, spoke: having only learned to speak English comfortably as an adult, according to the poet she translated her own idiomatic Gaelic directly into English, leaving him with echoes he could draw on for the rest of his life. I certainly derive much pleasure from the way his images spill so naturally out of the poems.
Ian Hamilton Finlay
Are there any contemporary (Scottish or foreign) writers that you feel a special kinship with?
All the younger Gaelic poets are to be commended for engaging with the world we live in with tremendous commitment and imagination. Against all the realistic odds, new poets keep emerging, to do new and exciting things
People I would see as being my own generation of Irish Gaelic poets, particularly Michael Davitt, Cathal O Searcaidh and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, I admire and respect hugely and regard as key figures in a community of poets in that language who have done much to build bridges between the Scots and Irish Gaeldoms and between Gaeldom and the wider world. I am as likely to meet such poets at poetry events in New York or Berlin as in Edinburgh or Dublin. Among younger Irish language poets, Gearoid MacLochlainn’s Belfast vernacular and association with the edgier realms of popular music give his poetry a particularly attractive energy.
All the living Scots previously mentioned would have to be acknowledged, plus prose writers like James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, whom I got to know as fellow members of Philip Hobsbaum’s Glasgow Group, and a slightly younger generation of poets like Brian McCabe and John Burnside. There are, inevitably, others whom we have to search the archives for but who are very much alive, and responsible for some of the best writing of the past half-century, Donald Campbell being a particular example.
I don’t think we do nearly enough to access contemporary work from other languages. Last summer, I was privileged to work with Lichtensteiner Michael Donnhauser in a mutual translation exercise organised by the Berlin Poetry Festival: although I hadn’t seen his work previously, engaging with it at close quarters was an immensely stimulating experience. More should be done to bring us into contact with the poetries of other languages, particularly where thare are notable levels of shred experience, historical or on-going. But why shouldn’t poets in ‘marginalised’ Gaelic not be able to engage directly with ‘innumerable’ Chinese, for example? We have much to learn from each other. I don’t think we should be measuring languages in terms of numbers of speakers, but of creative energy. If poets can come up with the goods, they are the equal of any: it’s not a competition, though, but a communication that ought to be happening.
Gaelic is a minority language in Scotland and writing in Gaelic is a choice that obviously restricts the number of one’s readers. Wouldn’t it be a more obvious choice to write in English? What is it that one can’t express in English as successfully as in Gaelic?
I don’t have much say in this mattter. If the thought comes first in Gaelic, the poem that follows will be in Gaelic; if it’s triggered through English, the same applies. I probably bring less of my Gaelic world into the English poetry than vice-versa, but once the poem is begun, it becomes a journey/search toward completion, with lucidity a prime objective.
The Avoiding and Other Poems is a bilingual book. If I wanted to sound a bit cynical, I would say, isn’t it a bit artificial to include facing English translations of your original Gaelic poems?
My life as a poet began (as I believe did Sorley Maclean’s) through the medium of English. Given that English was the only language given any authority, at school, in the newspapers, the books we had to read, the radio. Even church leaned toward English, if occasionally negatively. Sunday school was in English and the snappier sermons were in English - those in Gaelic were longer, for a child interminably so. The Gaelic poetry we were exposed to at secondary school was of the weightier 18th century sort - no poetry of the 19th century Highland Clearances, and none of the marvellous folk songs. So I have seen myself as an English language poet, chronologically before becoming a Gaelic poet as well, and as one who valued the opportunity to reach the non-Gaelic audience among whom most of my life is spent, in translations that aspire to be as close in creative quality as the originals. If I don’t translate poems originally written in English into Gaelic it’s because there’s no need: Gaels all read English, including many who can’t comfortably (if at all) read their native language. Some critics have questioned the appropriateness of people like me translating our own work, but quite what the objection is I fail to understand. My perception is that, as the originator of the poem, who either crafted it to make striking something I wanted to say, or went with it to find out what I had to say, I might reasonably be assumed to be suitably qualified to bring out the closest approximation to the qualities of the original. Having said that, I will happily encourage anyone to have a go at translating my poems who is so motivated. Every reader’s interpretation is going to be leavened by that reader’s own experiences.
What kind of readership did you have in mind when writing that book?
I don’t think I ever write a poem with a specific readership in mind. Even when commissioned to write to a particular theme or brief, I find the process of exploring the direction into which I have been prompted tends to take over. I suppose that if An Seachnadh has any unifying drive it arises from a sustained preoccupation with working out my relationship with the conservative presbyterian Christianity of my upbringing. If every aspect of secular pleasure is viewed with suspicion by the centres of influence in your community, it tends to leave a lot to be worked out. Given that our school head teacher was also an elder in the church I was obliged to attend, I had a surfeit of such questions to resolve.
What do we gain or lose when we read the English text without understanding the Gaelic original?
The rhythms of any language are likely to be peculiar to that language. Gaelic is particularly well endowed with long vowels and dipthongs which makes it a particularly easy language in which to attain a kind of musicality, though that can, if necessary, be worked against. Ambiguities don’t always translate, and sometimes less than desirable ambiguities may arise in the translation. A good translation will not necessarily replicate the assonances or metric patterns of the original, but if it creates its own distinctive atmosphere while carrying the poet’s original intention, in terms of mood or meaning, it may be said to have worked.
How big is the literary prestige of Gaelic in Scotland or in the UK these days?
It’s harder for the literary establishment in Scotland, to present itself without a demonstrable reference to Gaelic. Sorley MacLean’s achievement, and his subsequent international reputation means that the poetry of his successors has to be measured with due seriousness. Scottish literature cannot be written about anymore without reference to Gaelic poetry and its practitioners. Nor do magazine editors tend to the view that Gaelic can be ignored. Along with Britain’s other marginalised languages, including Lowland Scots, Welsh and Irish, Gaelic per se is less likely to have a presence in publications that have a more ‘national’ (ie London-Oxbridge) perspective. In more general terms, recognition continues to present difficulties. Don’t ask a daily newspaper to publish a Gaelic poem - a translation, perhaps, on very rare occasions but never the original.
How relevant is Gaelic tradition to you and how can one renew the Gaelic traditions in poetry?
The fact that Gaelic poetry was essentially oral, usually sung, until the early 20th century means that virtually every Gaelic poet is going to acknowledge its influence on how we use our language. I don’t take the view that any interpretation of, or reaction to, the tradition, no matter how “outrageous”, is sacriligious. I believe in the intrinsic value of all traditions, but believe also that no matter how vigorously an “avant-gardist” may confront, stretch, distort, disown it, a tradition will survive. The themes and motifs are there to be rediscovered and reworked according to the needs of the time. We have our songs sung by interpretors who belong to continuums that go back hundreds, possibly thousands of years, and that’s how it should be. We also have our interpretors whose concern is to subject the same material to the most radical treatmemt possible, and that’s how it should be. The healthiest tradition will have the confidence of self-belief coupled with an ear open to all that is fruitful from elsewhere. I believe early 21st Century Gaelic culture is in a singularly dynamic state, numerically fragile yet creatively strong, rich in traditional voices and innovation
Would you talk about your book A Proper Schooling? What does the title mean?
The title poem draws on the dichotomy between what we were taught at school, which had the imprimatur of authority, and the anecdotal history we learned at the fireside, but which had no perceived validity until James Hunter’s book, The Making of the Crofting Community gave a formal context to events I’d heard since infancy as the fireside reminiscences of my great aunt (“not history but memory”) If The Avoiding explored the effects of an outwardly puritanical theology on the individual and community, and the ways of coming to terms with / accomodating it, A Proper Schooling is more to do with articulating a place in history and the wider world for the Gaelic experience.
Would you talk about working with Philip Hobsbaum in Glasgow?
When I first met Philip Hobsbaum, I was very much adrift in a sea of prosodic possibilities, with neither compass nor anchor. Philip’s advice to “Write about what you know. Go back to your roots” enabled me to open (though not without difficulty) the door to a personal voice through which I could begin to express my relationship with the world. Although Philip’s group did not encompass Gaelic poetry, he did accommodate and encourage other Gaelic poets, as well as those writing in Scots. At that time I was writingn mostly in English, so there was no sense of creative conflict, although Hobsbaum did express, on more than one occasion, the belief that I’d “have to choose”.
The Glasgow Group was run on the same basis as its predecessors in Cambridge/London and Belfast (more detailed accounts of which can be read on the net). Pre-circulated texts were read by the author in the “hot seat” then analysed in considerable detail. Perhaps most of all, it taught us the importance of being able to justify the use of every word in a piece of writing, and to be able, in due course, to make such judgements with confidence for ourselves. There were those whose critical faculties were fully tuned already, But I’d count myself as one who, initially, had much to learn (being any kind of creatrive artist is, of course, a learning process until death).
Being in the Group, at that particular time meant one was privileged to hear and comment on sections from Alasdair Gray’s “Lanark”, and Jim Kelman’s Bus Conductor Hines before these books had found a publisher!
In Meg Bateman’s poem ‘The Decline of Gaelic’ the lines ‘humanity being robbed/ without hope of reparation’ sound like an elegy for a lost Gaelic world. Do you ever experience a similar sense of loss? Do you take this loss personally? Or do you perceive a loss that affects universal human values?
Sorley MacLean, in the 1930s, wrote about the agony of “putting his thoughts in a dying tongue”, while acknowledging he could do no other.. The poems in Rock and Water were written (in English) as a kind of record of a way of life I saw as disappearing: the sequence was already well advanced before I had started writing seriously in Gaelic. Logic tells me Gaelic cannot survive: instinct persuades me that it will refuse to die. The more poets, novelists, songwriters and, film-makers, whatever, insist on taking the language to its creative and imaginative limits, the more likelihood there is that society will insist on its survival. Every language has something unique to give to the world: the more essential and energised that “something” is, the more - I believe - is its continuing viability going to be insisted on, and provided for.
Gaelic poetry has long been associated with orality and performance. To what extent have the oral traditions affected your own considerations in technique and subject matter?
From an early age, you hear song, which by its nature is an oralising of the word. Gaelic song was woven into our lives, along with another sung thread which no Presbyterian child could avoid - the Gaelic psalms, both as an aspect of formal worship and as an unavoidable element in education - particularly if your primary school master was an elder in the local church! I think that hearing the sung work as much as I did left an ingrained sense of the sound of words, and the effect that could be created by those sounds. I imagine that the formal patterning of song must have had its influence on how I sense and use the rhythms of language, even when composing in “free verse”: I feel very uncomfortable with a piece of writing that does’nt have a distinct sense of rhythm, no matter how irregular the scansion.
Another thing that has been associated with Gaelic culture is exile and emigration. What’s your own experience? Have you ever felt like an exile? Is it a relevant question for you?
In my time, every educable Gael was born with the shell of exile on his (occasionally hers, but usually his) back. Actually, the great majority of young islanders, who wanted any kind of training, were likely to have to leave home to achieve their ends. Many nurses and city policemen were likely to be Gaels. There were ships where the entire crew, from skipper to cabin boy, were Gaels. And, of course, there were generations of emigrants, some forced, some “voluntary” to North America and Australia, and elsewhere. We all had cousins in the city, and more distant cousins overseas. I knew, at quite an early stage in life that I would be expected to go off to “university” whatever that was. As I recall, I wanted to go to sea, as my father, uncles and grandfathers (at least I supposed they also) had done. In the early days, I was just a country boy in the big city - excited and scared in just about equal measure. By the time I got to university, in my mid-twenties, I was more concerned to work out my identity as a poet, than with questions of origin, or relationship with place. It tokk that key remark from Philip Hobsbaum, “Go back to your roots” to send my on the first uncertain steps toward working out a relationship with where I was from. And by the time I was old enough to even contemplate the npossibility that return could ever be an option, it was too late. Too many of the old ones had gone, whose lives and personalities gave the place those particular characteristics that allowed me to call it home. More and more, each time I returned, with fewer familiar faces to greet me, what remains my birthplace became less and less a place I could easily call home. Where I live is home, but it’s the adopted home: the place where I grew up is home, even though it no longer exists. Because a place is never just its topography: the smoke rising from a particular chimney must indicate a particular, familiar, figure stooped over the fireplace, stoking coals in. So I guess, yes, the question has some relevance to me. It therefore seems natural that I should empathise with the displaced peoples of the world, whether, historically, the First Nations of North America, or currently, the Kurdish communities alienated by the various states that occupy their land, and the Palestinians, for whose plight no Western government, or national media, seems capable of demonstrating any understanding, or expressing any sympathy. I have visited Israel, and have friends there, so I am not advocating abolition of that state, though it seems obvious there are contradictions it has yet to resolve. The way enemies are demonised, so that we do not need to think of how, or why, they come to be “enemies”: that paradox that arises from not going among those we do not understand, which enables our politicians to manipulate our feelings, and therefore our attitudes, should be harder to achieve when the other is viewed from somewhere else, when you have had experience of being the “other”. Putting such charged thoughts into effective poetry isn’t so easy though. My primary school was on the other side of the bay, so, from the age of five, I viewed the house where we lived, “home”, from a distance (perhaps half a mile in crow’s flight).
In the poem ‘dol dhachaigh – 2’ (going home – 2) you write about travelling birds, travelling salmon, and travelling seasons even, which may be seen in terms of an opposition with the quiet and stationary world as described in ‘gleann fadamach’ (glen remote). What is your view on the double pull of migratory spirit and loyalty to the landscape?
The poem dol dhachaidh arose out of recalling conversations with city Gaels, in their middle age, returning to their home village for the summer holidays and discussing their plans to retire there. By the time they came to retire, their reasons for returning, as I cite myself in answering the previous question, had diminished, although the dream never altogether faded from their converstions, as I recall. gleann fadamach relates to one of many deserted villages found in Highland, and Island glens, to which no such return is possible, because the landscape is one of ruins and absence of people. Sorley MacLean’s Hallaig, which I was privileged to visit for the first time last year, is a particularly potent example, and one I could identify with as part of the wider Gaelic landscape to which I have a sense of belonging although my actual home now is in the Scottish Borders.
Have you ever felt marginalized as a writer?
Liz Lochhead used to comment on her role as the “token woman writer”. Gaels, in UK terms, live with either being featured as a “Gaelic poet” or, more commonly, as far as mainstream events and magazines are concerned, not being acknowledged at all. It may be that we are to blame in not submitting material, but when you have read, for example, a magazine like the “national” Poetry Society’s house magazine, The Poetry Review, for decades and never seen a poem in Gaelic, Irish or Welsh included, you are entitled to assume that there is a perception that such languages don’t belong in the family of British languages. We can travel anywhere else in the world and be welcome as bona fide poets, and there are some signs of improvement in Scotland itself, but there are still entrenched prejudices to be overcome. My own perception is that I am a poet who happens to write in Gaelic - which happens to be my native language. I am happy also to be a poet who writes in English. There is, however, a further marginalisation to live with - if published by a Scottish imprint, your work is unlikely to be widely reviewed - not at all at the UK national level, and erratically at the Scottish national level (It has been suggested that a publisher’s ability to advertise in a given journal can enhance attention to the material published).
Is it demanded from a Gaelic writer to live on Skye or in the Hebrides? Can you be a successful Gaelic writer elsewhere, say in Glasgow or London?
To the first question, “no”; to the second, essentially, “yes”.
My country has just joined the EU and here people are told that apart from having access to the common market we have also joined a special set of European values and principles, so this my standard question: as a poet living in an EU state, can you identify with a spiritual or cultural idea of Europe? Do you ever feel European values and traditions are relevant to your own work?
I do think we have much more in common than could ever divide us. The democratic impulse is rooted in our communal histories. You see it in the Nordic “Tings” (including the present Isle of Man parliament - a Nordic institution in a Celtic culture) and in the Celtic principal of leadership by consent (not necessarily of the whole tribe, but of a sufficient cross-section to make it at least as democratic as the Greeks. I think the collective imperative that shapes so many of our societies (when freely opted for, rather than coerced or manipulated into) arises from those societal structures that had a core base in mutual obligation. Apart from the intrusive Judeo-Christian mythology (itself leavened with Greek mythic elements, among others) I think our Celtic mythology, as much as can be pieced together of it, shares many characteristics with those of both Northern and Southern Europe. Polytheism on an animistic base would appear to have given definition to the lives of all our ancestors. Traces of those old beliefs still surface among the personal beliefs of the most “rational” of our citizens: were we to inquire, we may find that they are not only more widespread but more comprehensive, that a systematic study of beliefs normally dismissed as “superstitions” might reveal a more nearly intact body of indigenous (pre-Christian) beliefs than we imagine possible. A knowledge of what the Celtic ancestors of the Halstadt and La Tene cultures thought about their world, and how those thoughts related to those of other contemporary cultures, would be useful to us today, in enabling us to identify more clearly the continuums that exist across both history and societies. While different societies may have, superficially, developed radically different social structures, when we engage with each other, what strikes us is the kinships. Tolstoy may have been a Russian aristocrat in the time of serfdom, but his humanity is apparent to the poorest crofter or mariner on the Western extremities of Europe. In Beethoven’s “Pastoral” I hear the sounds of summers I have also known in Gulf Stream damp North West Scotland. The marble statue depicting the “Dying Gaul” found in Sallust’s garden, and now on display at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, may symbolise the extinction of a culture (though we are still here), but it still speaks to us across more than two millennia, as a wonderful piece of art.
Just how much is Gaelic a European language? Why is it special? Why do we have to know more about Gaelic culture?
Gaelic, along with the other Celtic languages, Irish and Manx in the Q-group, and Welsh, Cornish and Breton, in the P-group, forms part of the Indo-European family of languages (historically, it can be claimed, through the imaginative “translations” in James MacPherson’s Ossianic collections, to have launched the European Romantic movement: poets, artists and musicians, as well as politicians were influenced by MacPherson’s writings). Every language imparts its own particular portion of knowledge. I remember reading the account of a last surviving member of an American tribe, whose death would take a body of lore that included significant cures obtained from plants which he knew only by their native names. Gaelic has traditions, in song, poetry and story-telling which are distinctive, rich and ancient, for which alone it would remain important, but its continuing role as a source of powerful new works to be read, heard and sung, makes it crucial that Gaelic be accepted within the community of modern languages. The songs of Runrig and the works of all the poets are currently being complemented by a body of prose, novels and short stories, of major significance.
Do you see yourself as a Scottish poet? Or a British poet? Or a European poet? Are any of these categories relevant to you at all?
Most of my subject matter is Scottish, by virtue of my familiarity with its geography, sociology, lore and history, as well as my extensive reading of Scottish literature and reference material: it is, after all, the culture into which I was born and with which I am happy to identify. The poets writing in English that appeal to me, other than the Scotttish poets who do so, would include Thomas Hardy (whose imagined Wessex contains, in Cornwall, much territory that is Celtic), Wilfred Owen, whose surname indicates Welsh ancestrym and more obviously Celtic poets like Dylan Thomas, WB Yeats, Seamus Heaney and of the 30s poets, Louis MacNeice, an Ulsterman. If “British” means the mainstream English tradition, as represented by WH Auden, Philip Larkin or Ted Hughes (whose surname is, I know, Welsh) and their contemporary heirs, it doesn’t engage me in any meaningful way. It’s not that I’m critical of the poetry, it just doesn’t excite me. Having had poems translated into several languages European, I am more than happy to be accepted into the communiity of European poets. I do have a sense of, particularly, East European, poets having had to engage in unavoidable direct and personal ways with the world they lived in. Even the most private poems have a distinctly public resonance. They are poems that had to be written, and I like that.
Kathleen Jamie and John Burnside and others have suggested that they have come to be interested in a general ‘northern’ or ‘marginal’ identity as opposed to a Scottish national or a European supranational identity. Would you include yourself in this group of writers?
My starting point is where I come from, which happens to be the township of Idrigil, on the north side of Uig Bay, in the Trotternish peninsula, most northerly in the Isle of Skye. The three names are all of Norse origin as is my surname, so that element must resonate with me. But the music and lore which pervaded my childhood and triggers, still, the most immediate response, was entirely Scottish Gaelic. I think it is possible to remain utterly Scottish while being at ease with both the European and international dimensions. I can understand why Japanese scholars connected with early Gaelic texts written by clerical scribes on the margins of illuminated manuscripts. Their evocations of nature seemed very Japanese, while the Gaelic concept of “listening to the music of what happens” must have seemed like pure Zen. In that, I also feel at home.
The above-mentioned writers have also said that the North European or Atlantic landscape and natural environment have become increasingly important for them. How important is landscape and nature for yourself? Do you see yourself as a nature poet?
I grew up in a landscape and I think that, even when your human ties have been severed, a childhood landscape stays within you. It remains specific, and special. When visiting Japan, in 1990, the landscape of Hokkaido, where we spent 10 days, became woven into those other lanscape of memory, not only of my native village but of various parts of Europe previously experienced - Switzerland, Poland, Brittany, for example. A rock formation or a meadow can affect my imagination in ways that no street or architectural construct ever could - although striking, usually eccentric, details in buildings can initiate their own dialogues.
How closely is Gaelic poetry tied up with nature as opposed to the urban environment? One of your recent books was called Rock and Water – what was the idea behind it?
I think Gaelic poets whose formative experience is urban will have no difficulty creating a thoroughly urban Gaelic poetics. My own interpretation of the title “Rock and Water” is that it is a metaphor for religion and humanity, more specifically the rock-hard puritanism in which I was brought up and the earthy fluidity with which members of the community could burst into song or deliver a bawdy anecdote - the resilience of the human spirit, which confronted by any great obstacle, will find a way to flow round it... Others are welcome to make their own analyses.
Speaking of water my personal impression (coming from a landlocked country) is that the sea is the cradle of life and nourishes man, and at the same time it is a substance alien to man, and at the same time it can evoke the feeling more than anything else (except the desert, perhaps) that one is on a living planet. What’s the significance of sea, wind and weather in your poems?
Growing up beside the sea, on the side of a generally well sheltered bay, I have memories of waiting for the next big wave to break over the wall of the long stone pier which reached out into the bay. A Westerly or Sou’Westerly wind was likely to have that effect. Harvests, of course, were dependent on the weather. Bad autumn weather always presented a threat to haymaking. The sea remained an issue because father was a mariner. On summer evenings, were he home between volages, he might take me out fishing in a neighbour’s small open dinghy: but that depended on the weather.
In this respect, to what extent does your poetry conform with or undermine Gaelic traditions?
I don’t know if you can truly undermine a tradition. Iconoclasm tends to have an invigorating effect on a healthy tradition. Finding new ways of expression doesn’t invalidate the old. In as much as I can objectively judge, my poetry both draws, extensively, on Gaelic traditions, while at the same time weaving elements from a diversity of sources into those traditions. I do also write formal song lyrics which nothers set to music: these make no pretence to being anything other than traditional in construction, while they may draw thematically on incidents or events from my own experience, and in that sense may be less than strictly conformist.
How important is spirituality and/or religion to you? Is there a special link between Gaelic poetry and spirituality?
My interest in aspects of the “Old Religion” of the Celts might lead some to assume that I am sympathetic to “New Age” disciples of “Celtic Spirituality”: they would be mistaken. My interest in how, and what, our ancestors believed should be measured on the same basis as my interest in how they played, or sang, or told their tales, and how they related to each other, formally and informally. Each of these elements may be seen to have survived, in however attenuated a state, forming threads in the continuum that acts as determinant in shaping how we view the world. All the old gods and heroes, and the stories that have grown around them, are, or ought to be, natural strands in our heritage, a legitimate source for the imagination to draw on. The imposed religion is there to react against. In that it shaped my education from infancy, it must inevitably be acknowledged that I am affected, and that the values of such a puritanical theology are ingrained in my psyche. A Gaelic poet, seeing a horse on the side of a hill, will tend to describe a horse on the side of a hill. Modern Gaelic poets may engage with symbolism, psychology or whatever other intellectual tool lies to hand, but only to more effectively reveal what’s there.
Beyond Identity: New Horizons in Modern Scottish Poetry by Attila Dosa...
Published, 1 December 2009 by Editions Rodopi B.V