1. Your latest collection, The Good Dark, recently won the Saltire Society Poetry Book of the Year! How does it feel to have won, and do you have a favourite poem from the collection?
Thanks very much. There’s many great books published every year so it was surprising to be nominated and jaw-dropping to hear I’d won. Of course, it feels wonderful to be acknowledged but, mostly, I hope it means a few more people might find their way to my book and to the others on the shortlist. However, that was all the way back in November, so I felt dreamy for a few days and then thought – shit, now I have to write another book.
I don’t really have a favorite poem but I do seem to read ‘Summer Nights, Walking‘ a lot.
2. One of the many projects you have worked on over the past few years was Reel Festivals / Highlight Arts, of which it is the belief that the arts can be used as a tool to promote unity and solidarity with communities and individuals from around the world. How important is this idea in your own literary work?
Thanks to Highlight Arts (nee Reel Festivals) I’ve been privileged to work with brave & talented poets as well as translators &organizers from Iraq, the High North, Pakistan and Syria. I help with literary programming and translating activities which meanspart of what I do is bring poets from the UK together with poets from these regions to work on new translations face to face. It is a very intimate process & I’m proud to facilitate it alongside committed translators and organizers all of whom believe that the creation of good art (and access to it) is paramount. So, while we do have this very beautiful & idealistic objective – the practice itself is tactile and based on making and sharing work. The artists who work together, we feel, have a tangible relationship which can be presented on stage (or in film or books) offering a glimpse into another culture and, importantly, the bonds between friends, artists and peoples.
What I end up thinking about and learning about is how people are wildly kind, generous and loving all over the world and that the differences between people across cultures are far less significant than our similarities. It turns out that kids skip school in Damascus, that radio stations in Erbil play recognizable hits, that there’s people everywhere who enjoy a good boogie. It is always astounding to see in how this kind of common ground, obvious whenever one sits across from another person, helps us to empathize with those whose experiences are wholly unique.
So, with my own poems I feel that the very act of writing something is an act which attempts to bridge a gap between individuals &that requires empathy, imagination and honesty. So, my work doesn’t exist to explicitly ‘promote unity and solidarity with communities and individuals from around the world‘. But might be fair to say that my work with Highlight Arts has been informed by my efforts as a writer – as someone who attempts to use language to close a distance between myself and a reader. I believe, and have witnessed, how we can connect with people whose experiences are outside our own, and these experiences can inform the way we speak and act in our own lives. Art, like the range of human emotions, spans generations and cultures. Anyone who has experienced musicians during a jam session will have seen this and it is the same when poets or visual artists work together. We have a cultural bond with each other which transcends.
Which sounds ridiculously lofty and not at all something I think about when I’m writing a poem. The poems themselves are largely personal affairs, often an effort to explain something of myself to myself.
3. In 2012, you wrote in the Edinburgh Review that ‘for many working in the Edinburgh arts scene, it has been and remains a fight’. In your opinion, is this still the case in 2016?
As a poet I’m fortunate to work in one of the quieter art forms. Writers don’t take up much space or need much in the way of resources which is why Edinburgh is such a great city for us. There’s plenty of events and opportunities on every level – from the grassroots to the professional.
However, as someone whose helped to organize live and loud stuff – theatre and gigs at the Forest and with Forest Fringe etc – it is a hard city to work in. Partly, people say, that’s because of Edinburgh’s population size and therefore limited audience – though I think the number of sold-out, high quality events happening regularly kind of refutes that notion. Personally, I think running an autonomous space here takes a lot of effort and money. So, I think musicians, theatre makers, and independent venues supporting local talent have a harder time than necessary in the city, especially the city centre.
From what I can see, Hidden Door, Out of the Blue, Leith Late and groups like ‘Desire Lines’ and ‘Music is Audible’ have made a real effort to sustain a dialogue between the city and the artists and organizers who choose to work in it and increase its profile, economy and livibility. I think some individuals on the council get it and are listening but I’m not sure what steps they can take to redress thefact that it is fraying and onerous at the moment to run an autonomous space in the heart of the city.
3. As well as your published work, I have heard from a reliable source (Broad) that you have put on some superb one man one shows. Are there any challenges to writing a performance piece that differ to written poetry?
I’m sure it is different for other poets but, for me, I can’t write specifically for performance. That’s not where my head is when I’m writing a poem. Often, I’m writing to myself or to a loved one, I’m writing to a small worry, a tiny sense of an idea. If I wrote specifically for performance I would totally ruin things by drifting to the polemical, the comedic, the prosaic and didactic. So, I try not to let the performance into my head too much when I’m writing something and I prefer to re-contextualize poems I’ve already written simply for the page into whatever performance or commission I’m working on. That can’t always be done, of course, like withViewMaster – I did set myself a challenge to write a 10 minute poem for each slide.
And that was daunting but I kept in mind something the poet Mario Petrucci once said to me when I was struggling to write to spec. He said something along the lines of, ‘when you’re writing for a commission, just write about what you want.’
Now, this might be a wild extrapolation (and Mario was certainly more eloquent) but I took that to mean, ‘if you’ve been thinking a lot lately about poverty or loss and you get a commission from the Forestry commission to write about wolves – find a way to shift it in the direction of your concern.’
So, after looking at a reel of Mecca or Tulip Time in Holland for the ViewMaster show, I’d just write about what I wanted. Which, in the back of my mind, was nostalgia, loss & legacy. And forgetting that I had a rough deadline and something in mind for the poem beyond the page was sometimes a challenge to getting actual words down.
4. As an American poet living in Scotland, why have you chosen to make Edinburgh your base?
It was an accident. I ended up here the same way people end up in Cleveland. A very happy accident.
6. And finally, who is your favourite writer at the moment, and is there anything that the Rally & Broad audiences should read up on before seeing you at the show?
My favorite writer at the moment is Stephen Dunn whose poems are deceptively simple and dauntingly honest. No homework is necessary.