This October sees the Dundee Literary Festival, among which delights we may experience three contributors to a collection of essays by and about 21st-century women, Nasty Women. Jen McGregor, Alice Tarbuck and Becca Inglis will help elucidate why it was already a sensation before it launched on International Women’s Day this year. The Mumble managed to catch up with one of the trio for a wee blether
Hello Alice, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Hello! I’m from Edinburgh (Leith to be specific!), and after a period in Cambridge and London, am back to happily living in Edinburgh!
When did you first realise you were a poet?
I think like most people who enjoy writing, I’ve written all my life – I admire the unselfconsciousness of children, who just go for it! Certainly, in the beginning, it was all a load of joyful nonsense. Still is, really!
Which poets inspired you at the beginning & who today?
At the beginning, as a child, I read things like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, and loved it. My current favourite poets in Scotland and the UK are Rebecca Tamas, who writes brilliant witchy poems, Iain Morrison, who writes incredible, intricate poems that wriggle into your brain, Marjorie Lofti Gill, whose collection ‘Pilgrim’ I could not recommend highly enough, and Harry Josephine Giles, whose collection, Tonguit, was listed for the Forward Poetry Prize for best first collection last year.
You are currently a PhD candidate at the University of Dundee & the Scottish Poetry Library – how is the thesis going?
*insert screaming noise!* I’m hopefully handing in in a matter of days.
What is that attracted you to the poetry of Thomas A. Clark?
Clark is unlike any poet working in the UK today. His work comprises tiny folded objects, right up through artists books to installations on a large scale. His meditative, minimalist aesthetic draws the reader in, to the beautiful complexity that lies behind so much of his work. You can get a better sense of it via his blog.
What does Alice Tarbuck like to do when she’s not writing?
I’m a keen forager, and I love to cook. I also enjoy being the least coordinated person in any given exercise class, and singing.
What are the stand-out continuous themes running through your work?
I am very drawn to mysteries, be they from religion or folktales. Moments of transformation, things going wrong. I’m interested in the hard, sharp, strange edges of things, and in the body, in its fluids and curious forms. I like edging away from grammar and syntax.
Later this month you will be talking about the Nasty Women project at the Dundee Literary Festival. Can you tell us about this?
I am so excited to be speaking alongside Becca Inglis and Jen McGregor, and we’re so grateful to the Dundee Literary Festival, and to Peggy Hughes, for programming us! We’ll be talking about the extraordinary success of 404 Ink Publishing, and why it’s more important than ever to hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. You can purchase tickets here.
Which authors will you be looking out for yourself at the festival?
There are so many brilliant authors coming this year, its almost impossible to choose!
However, Rachel McCrum and Caroline Bird are unmissable, and I’m so excited for Erin Farley’s tour and talk around the Jute Works – fascinating! https://literarydundee.co.uk/festival/tour-warp-weft-and-words
What is the literary future of Alice Tarbuck?
Ha! Who knows! More poems, hopefully, and perhaps even something longer!
The Belonging Project is a creative writing project that has been running throughout Scotland over the past year. Set up by two women, Marjorie Lotfi Gill, a writer, Poet in Residence at Jupiter Artland and Wigtown Festival, and Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston, a photographer, both of whom are Edinburgh-based but had experience of fleeing from war in Iran and Sri Lanka as children. The project, funded by Creative Scotland, began with just a small remit of workshops that exploded by demand into 130 hours, as the StAnza Poetry Festival commissioned work in schools across St.Andrews.
Workshops for the public were in a range of beautiful, inspiring and accessible venues, art galleries like the National Portrait Gallery, libraries like the National Library, the Scottish Poetry Library, and Glasgow Women’s Library. Also, most interestingly, in a huge variety of community spaces and with groups like Shakti Women’s Aid and the Maryhill Integration Network.
Each two hour workshop, led by the warm and welcoming Marjorie, coaxed the participants into sharing personal stories and feelings through poetry and short pieces of prose. There was no pressure to share, but in a safe and welcoming environment, everyone did. Amazingly touching and beautiful work was read around the table, over countless cups of tea and Marjorie’s trademark tin of delicious home-made flapjacks. Word prompts, responses to poems, objects and photographs triggered creative writing on themes of belonging, family, assimilation, journeys..sharing stories of Scottish childhoods in remote places and moving to the city, and others, leaving husbands, and parents and homelands.
It’s the diversity of participants that marks this project out as innovative, thoughtful and far reaching. Diversity is a word often bandied about without actually effecting full inclusion and equal opportunity, but this project is the real deal. We have such a wonderful opportunity at this time in Scotland to build a multi-cultural society in a pro-active way, developing and promoting the benefits of multiculturalism as part of the school curriculm and beyond. The Belonging Project helped to integrate many newcomers into Scottish society, giving a voice and a feeling of belonging to recent migrants and refugees.
Two performance poets from Australia, Luka Lesson and Omar Musa took us into new territory in the serene environment of Jupiter Artland. Standing in front of modern sculptures against a backdrop of yellow rape fields and blue skies, they inspired us with their electric and powerful oratory, and gave us the opportunity to directly respond to some of their poems. Being of Greek and Malaysian heritage themselves, they were able to share with us their ideas of best practice working in the arts in communities in multi-cultural Australia.
It’s vital that art and culture organisations establish links with all sectors of society; health, care, education and media, and this project did this extremely effectively. Sessions were held directly in prison communities, and links made to reach people with mental health issues, domestic violence survivors, migrants, refugees and LGBTI groups. It was very important to Marjorie that someone who had had the experience of being a refugee lead the workshops, even though it was difficult for her to have to keep retelling her personal and traumatic story many times over.
Many of the participants wrote poems based on distinct Scottish traditions and language, and there was a palpable pride in reclaiming expressions of identity that were suppressed for many years. As the project grows it will expand to include more rural and traditional communities. This project has great scope to preserve and reimagine what is culturally distinct about Scotland and gives it its strong identity. Many of the workshops included the relationship with the landscape and our deeper emotional connection with the area. Scottish Book Trust are going to fund a larger project in schools in St.Andrew’s with wrap around material for children to instigate positive conversations about journeying and belonging with their families and discover more about their ancestors and local communities.
StAnza is also keen to continue the project because none of the children in the classes in St.Andrew’s had ever been exposed to anyone with the experience of being a refugee or ever had a discussion about it before. Discussions that are so important to have in this current climate of instability and change due to Brexit, independence, and the migrant crisis. A project such as this has huge potential to expand country wide and year round, with art that can grow out of the connection to land and local communities and traditions, helping to cut the flow of brain drain to London and beyond.
The project was fortunate to use prestigious and elegant venues, all part of allowing people to feel like they belong to established power centres of art and culture in Scotland and have a link to the past. Using spaces like the National Portrait Gallery has attracted completely new visitors to the building. Part of decolonising these spaces of power and elitism came through debates over which parts of society are reflected in the choices of displays within the gallery. Each venue stimulated different ideas and changed the quality of the work and it was fascinating to be able to listen to and respond to work from other types of groups.
There was a public reading at Glasgow Women’s Library that also shared work of refugee women from the Maryhill Integration Network. Marjorie read work at the Wigtown Book Festival and a group of us from various backgrounds and cities read a selection of work at the Callender Poetry Weekend in early September.
Successful community arts projects like this one combat isolation and create relationships of cooperation and voluntarism, bringing the power back to communities and taking pressure off public sector services like mental health, schools etc. At its simplest and most powerful, one of the single greatest results of good art should be to stimulate our human sense of empathy as we explore our similarities, leading to many benefits to society as a whole.
In the words of a poem by Tommy Olofsson, used as a prompt in the workshops:
Let’s be the same wound if we must bleed
Let’s fight side by side, even if
The enemy is ourselves: I am yours
you are mine.
Reviewer : Lisa Michel Williams
Beginning an occasional series of essays into the art of poetry
Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians, where no writing is, yet have they their poets who make and sing songs, which they call “Areytos,” both of their ancestor’s deeds and praises of their gods.
Sir Philip Sidney
It has often been my pleasure, upon being asked the question, ‘what do you do?‘ to answer with confidence that I am a Poet, for I love the way a bonnie lady’s ear will perform a slight twitch on first hearing the word. Unfortunately, far from their vision of a romantic, sonnet-wielding, frantic & beautiful lord-between-the-bedsheets, there is an actual meaning behind the word. Most poets are indeed excellent lovers, granted, but what does it actually mean to be a poet? First thing’s first, a poet’s soul must contain a symphonium of music. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Litereia, writes;
The man that hath not music in his soul can indeed never be a genuine poet. Imagery,–(even taken from nature, much more when transplanted from books, as travels, voyages, and works of natural history),–affecting incidents, just thoughts, interesting personal or domestic feelings, and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem,–may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talent and much reading, who, as I once before observed, has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius; the love of the arbitrary end for a possession of the peculiar means. But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learned. It is in these that “poeta nascitur non fit.”
These musical gifts are used by the poet to startle his peers, who in wonderment would listen to his words. Before long this natural dynamic elevated the poet to the position of teacher, who would define the universe for said peers, inventing gods & teaching them morality en route. Of this progress, Edward Kelly, in his prologium to Edmund Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar, tells us (after Plato), ‘the first inuention of Poetry was of very vertuous intent. For…some learned man being more hable then the rest, for speciall gyftes of wytte and Musicke, would take vpon him to sing fine verses to the people, in prayse eyther of vertue or of victory or of immortality or such like. At whose wonderful gyft al men being astonied and as it were rauished, with delight, thinking (as it was indeede) that he was inspired from aboue, called him vatem.’ The Vatem, or Vates, is what the Romans considered a divine seer, whose task it was to raise up mens’ minds from the mortal moral morass, enlightening them with their heavenly-assisted visions & improving public virtue through divine inspiration. A couple of years later, another Elizabethan poet, Philip Sidney, added;
Among the Romans a poet was called “vates,” which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet, as by his conjoined words “vaticinium,” and “vaticinari,” is manifest; so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge
These words are contained in the Apologie for Poetry, with which Philip Sidney became the first in a long line of English poet-critics. Written in 1580-81, but printed posthumously for the first time in 1595, within these 60-odd pages exists the best description of what it is to be a poet. He wrote the Apologie after a personal attack on him & his beloved art by Stephen Gosson, whose 1579 treatise, the School of Abuse, sets about;
Conteining a plesaunt inuective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Iesters & such like Catterpillars of a Commonwealth! Setting up the Flagge of Defiaunce to their mischeieuous exercise & ouerthrowing their Bulwarkes by Prophane Writers, Naturel reason & common experience
Perhaps Gosson had a point, for in the Apologie Sidney himself complains that, ‘England, the mother of excellent minds, should be grown so hard a step-mother to poets.’ Sydney remonstrates against the squallid depths to which the art had degenerated among the English since the heady times of Chaucer, almost two centuries previously. His point is, however, that it is not the art that was at fault, but the artists. Using the ancient poets as his models, Sydney hopes to redefine the image of the Muses & their Ministers. For myseld, such a bold & beautiful statement holds an impressive resonance in these our modern times, for as we shall see the vision of a poet as portrayed by Sydney (& thus the ancients) is a far cry from the impedantic disrespect of poetry which litters today’s poetical bookshelves.
Of the Apologie, JC Collins writes, ‘a better introduction to the study of poetry could scarcely be conceived, for not only does it put poetry in its proper place as an instrument of education, but it deals with it generally as only a poet himself could deal with it, with illuminating insight, with most inspiring enthusiasm.’ To Sidney, the raison d’etre of his chosen art was to ‘plant goodness even in the secretest cabinet of our souls.’ So little poetry these days comes near to even touching the true divine spark within us all, which has seen a gradual loss of respect for the art across the human condition. As I said in my first lecture, I intend to reset the clock, so to speak, & to do this we must get back to root, to identify the original kernel of the poet’s soul. Let us begin at the (relative) beginning then, with a selection of passages from the Apologie, which I hope shall elucidate Sidney’s vision of an ideal poet in a more palatable fashion.
Poets are Fathers in Learning
In the noblest nations and languages that are known, hath been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges
Let learned Greece, in any of her manifold sciences, be able to show me one book before Musæus, Homer, and Hesiod, all three nothing else but poets. Nay, let any history he brought that can say any writers were there before them, if they were not men of the same skill, as Orpheus, Linus, and some others are named, who having been the first of that country that made pens deliverers of their knowledge to posterity, may justly challenge to be called their fathers in learning.
In the Italian language,the first that made it to aspire to be a treasure-house of science, were the poets Dante, Boccace, and Petrarch; so in our English were Gower andChaucer; after whom, encouraged and delighted with their excellent foregoing, others have followed to beautify our mother tongue, as well in the same kind as other arts.
Poet as Creator
Let us see how the Greeks have named it, and how they deemed of it. The Greeks named him a Poet,which name hath, as the most excellent, gone through other languages; it cometh of this word poiein which is ‘to make;’ wherein, I know not whether by luck or wisdom, we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him “a maker.”
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew; forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, Cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.
Poets Fashion Ideal Models
Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation; for so Aristotle termeth it in the word Mimesis; that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth: to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end, to teach and delight
It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet… but it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by…
…to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses; if they will learn aright, why, and how, that maker made him.
…brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes; so constant a friend as Pylades; so valiant a man as Orlando; so right a prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus; and so excellent a man every way as Virgil’s Æneas?
This purifying of wit, this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit, which commonly we call learning
Directed to the highest end of the mistress knowledge, by the Greeks called architektonike which stands, as I think, in the knowledge of a man’s self
The final end is, to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by, their clay lodgings, can be capable of.
Poets just don’t think like Sidney today –which I suppose, is the problem with modern poetry, for with so much information available at the click of a button, no-one feels like they should be able to teach people very much. Instead, they wander through their whimsies in rhyme or Free Verse & like ephemeral bees & butterflies in a garden, rather than the firm-rooted blooms of our forebears.
I firmly believe that Poetry should no longer deny its original object a stated half a millennia ago by Sidney. ‘A poem is never finished’ they say, & neither is the reason why poetry exists – to teach mankind. We must remember that it is this art’s particular ability to captivate the best words in their best order which amazes its audience, & it is from such a position of intellectual grandeur that mankind may yet be given a worthy education. We poets must begin to raise the bar once more : no-one in the West is absorbing long forgotten or as yet undiscover’d foreign forms; no-one is pushing back the boundaries of the art with conviction; no-one – god dammit – is inventing. All we have now is a sterile pond where bubbling gasses gloop to the surface – cut off by some man-made landslide from the waters of the Parnassian streams.
To rise out of the muck, a poet should return to teaching. Knowledge these days is epic, multiplying almost as quickly as the Big Bang. But poetry’s advantage is its concision, & with it an inherent ability in the arrangements of words so beautiful that people actually enjoy the experience of learning. Now I am not saying the following verses are beautiful – it was an earlier exercise of my youth – but the point is I have stored some very important information in some rather cute-ish lines.
If you have an egg to boil
Heat water up by kettle coil
Then let it bubble in a pan
& add the egg & boil to plan –
A runny egg takes minutes three
Served with soldiers & cup of tea
A hard boil’d egg nine minutes paced
Add mayonnaise & salt to taste
To make a curry hot & tasty
fry your veggies odors free
mix some meat in if you like
fleshy ham to fresh caught pike
Milk & tomatoes make the sauce
Good curry powder puffs the force
Add other seasonings to taste
Then stew awhile, no need for haste.
Not awarding-winning stuff, granted, but useful. Anyhow, that is all for today’s lecture, but I shall leave you with the close of the Apologie, which sees Sidney at his most cockiest & eloquent best;
Since the ever praiseworthy poesy is full of virtue, breeding delightfulness, and void of no gift that ought to be in the noble name of learning; since the blames laid against it are either false or feeble; since the cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets; since, lastly, our tongue is most fit to honour poesy, and to be honoured by poesy; I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the Nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverend title of “a rhymer;” but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecian’s divinity; to believe, with Bembus, that they were the first bringers in of all civility; to believe, with Scaliger, that no philosopher’s precepts can sooner make you an honest man, than the reading of Virgil; to believe, with Clauserus, the translator of Cornutus, that it pleased the heavenly deity by Hesiod and Homer, under the veil of fables, to give us all knowledge, logic, rhetoric, philosophy natural and moral, and “quid non?” to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused; to believe, with Landin, that they are so beloved of the gods that whatsoever they write proceeds of a divine fury. Lastly, to believe themselves, when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses.
But if (fie of such a but!) you be born so near the dull-making cataract of Nilus, that you cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry; if you have so earth-creeping a mind, that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry, or rather, by a certain rustical disdain, will become such a Mome, as to be a Momus of poetry; then, though I will not wish unto you the ass’s ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a poet’s verses, as Bubonax was, to hang himself; nor to be rhymed to death, as is said to be done in Ireland; yet thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets; that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour, for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.
Edinburgh International Conference Center
Sunday 18th September
Not only is the Edinburgh International Book Festival spilling out into half the New Town, through its Booked! events, we’re now moving forwards in time as well. One must also admit that the Edinburgh International Conference Center is a most ravishingly salubrious local for a literary chit-chat, presenting us with the E.I.B.F @ the E.I.C.C.. Just as at Charlotte Square, we are given an hour with an author & a suitable raconteur. On this occasion, it was Nobel Prize winning Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, with Stuart Kelly conducting the event. Kelly had given Pamuk’s breakthrough book, My Name Is Red, a very favorable review, & so as a fan, to speak, the proceedings were congenial to experience.
Orhan Pamuk’s latest book, The Red-Haired Woman, is something that had been fermenting in his psyche for ever two decades. A short novel about a well-digger & his son, he has as always injected himself & his experiences into the text, & laden it with Turkish such culturisms as a forged in the land where west meets east in phantastical clashes, upon which minds the brightest & keenest artistic minds may feed. Pamuk is clearly one of these avatars, for into his novel, as he so energetically told us with a voice that sounded like a bowstring quimmering after release, he pours father-son tragedies such as Sohrab & Rustum, & Oedipus Rex. He then delighted in telling us how Sophocles nigh-forgotten play was brought to international fame by Sigmund Freud, & also how the modern audience has a completely different response to the play. Where we show pity, the ancients were glad to see some proper karmic retribution. Such musing sealed the deal for me, & I recognized a deep-souled individual in Mr Pamuk & even bought a book as I departed.
Reviewer : Damo
“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters. It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency. It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him. It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015). It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007). Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities. All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living beings themselves. They are not human beings; they are human seemings.
Since the accession of Trump to the presidency, there have been multiple stagings, visualizations, stylings, dramatizations of the decapitation and even of the assassination of the forty-fifth President of the United States. Such simulated deaths must be understood not as calls to actually decapitate or to assassinate the living human leader, indeed the leader of the world’s sole superpower, but rather as simulations of the death of a holographic projection, stylizations of the death of a clownish figure no more real than Donald Duck. Trump belongs to Nineteen Eighties trash culture alongside other two-dimensional caricatures of human beings such as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Joe Piscopo, and Morton Downey, Jr. If any of these characters had been assassinated, their deaths would seem as unreal as these figures themselves are. One thinks of Hegel’s meditation on the derealization of death in the time of the French Revolution and wonders if Hegel’s remarks aren’t still as fresh as the paint on our computer screens: Death in the time of the French Revolution, Hegel writes, was the “coldest, shallowest of deaths, with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head or swallowing a gulp of water.”
In J.G. Ballard’s great novel The Atrocity Exhibition, public figures such as Ronald Reagan and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy are subjected to the morbid and sordid fantasies of the main character. Since human beings are often dark creatures, their fantasies are often dark fantasies. Why should Trump be immune from the processes of dark-fantasization and fetishization? The imaginary assassinations of Donald Trump are simulated assassinations of a character who is already a simulation. The simulated deaths of Donald Trump are nothing more than the deaths of a simulation. Donald Trump does not exist. You cannot kill something that does not exist. Just as money is the abstract representation of desire, Donald Trump is the abstract representation of a gatherer of abstract representations. To become sentient of this simulation is to become something else: to become aware that what we are witnessing is a holographic image.
I will now turn to discuss the simulated assassinations of Donald Trump. I am excluding from this discussion the real attempt on Trump’s life on 18 June 2016 by a young Briton, as well as the subornation of Trump’s murder by celebrities such as Johnny Depp (a Kentucky-born actor with an affected European accent) and Madonna, who are themselves also unrealities.
In a 2016 promotional video for his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down (a much better title than Say10, the original name of the album), Marilyn Manson chimerized the decapitation of Donald Trump. This is the first and most artful chimerical execution of the president. The other representations of the assassination of Trump could safely be classified as agitprop or as artless publicity stunts.
In a video for the song “Lavender” by the Toronto-based electronic jazz band BadBadNotGood, Snoop Dogg (also known as “Snoop Lion” and “Snoopzilla”) can be seen mock-executing a clown who resembles Donald Trump. Incredibly, Snoop once had a congenial relationship with Trump, who sang dithyrambs in his honor: “You know Snoop Dogg? He’s the greatest. One of the nation’s best-selling hip-hop artists. And I’ll tell you what: He’s a great guy. And he’s a lot different than you think. You know, you think he’s a wild man? He’s a very, very smart, tough businessman, in addition to being a great musician.” The director of the video, professional YouTube videographer Jesse Wellens, was wise not to directly represent the execution of the president. He was unwise to do worse what Marilyn Manson did better.
The most sanguinary simulation of the assassination of Donald Trump was performed by comedienne Kathy Griffin, who arranged a photograph of herself in which she raised a severed wax head that resembled the head of the Commander-in-Chief. Her hair the same shade of red as the hair on the blood-bespattered head she holds aloft, her facial expression joyless, and her skin alabaster, she seems like a French revolutionary a few moments after the guillotine chops off the head of the monarch. At the press conference which she must have anticipated, Griffin said tristfully, as if in explanation, “I’ve dealt with older white guys trying to keep me down my whole life, my whole career.” One cannot suppress the question: Was she thinking of her father when she said this? Did the disembodied wax head perhaps summon memories of her father? Does she have a conscious or unconscious hatred for her father? Her real father, John Patrick Griffin, died in 2007 of a heart failure at the age of ninety-one. In any event, the performance piece was condemned by almost everyone on the Right and on the Left. CNN announced that Griffin would not be invited back to host its annual New Year’s Eve program.
Rightwing activists pretended to be scandalized by the 2017 open-air dramatization of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by New York’s Public Theater. During the performances, which took place in Central Park, Julius Caesar is dressed up as Donald Trump. The fictionalized murder of this Caesar-Trump is nowhere near as bloody as it is alleged to have been by Plutarch in his Lives, where, it is written, the body of Caesar was mutilated, mangled, and hacked to pieces. Plutarch even records that Caesar’s genitalia were stabbed. On 17 June 2017, Laura Loomer—one of the video personalities of Rebel Media, the Canadian rightist video company—jumped on stage during a performance of the play while live-recording herself. She screeched: “Stop the normalization of political violence against the Right! This is unacceptable. You cannot promote this kind of violence against Donald Trump.” She was joined by Jack Posobiec, former Washington correspondent for Rebel Media, who bellowed: “You are all Goebbels! You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels! You are inciting terrorists!” By disturbing the performance of the play, both of these people resembled those who the Right hates—those who commove performances and presentations. How are they any different? Even worse, they shattered the dramaturgical illusion that the architects and the performers of the play were struggling to create. Loomer twittered about the incident breathlessly: “The moment I rushed the stage of Julius Caesar. Listen to the violence and stabbing of ‘Trump’ that occurred right before. It is revolting.”
Before I consider the question as to whether Shakespeare’s Caesar has anything in common with Donald Trump, I will turn my attention to the text of the play itself.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) is Shakespeare’s attempt to explain the motives behind the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. and to show the baleful consequences that emerged from this assassination. (The Ides of March: the fifteenth of March on the Roman calendar, the day of settling debts. The day on which Caesar is forced to pay his debt to the conspirators.) The play also passes judgment, I believe, on the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman leader. In doing so, it passes judgment on all such plots to overthrow monarchies, dictatorships, and tyrannies. It is the antithesis of Measure for Measure (circa 1603), Shakespeare’s most politically liberal play, and one almost as politically conservative as The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1605-1608), one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite works of literature.
When we hear of him in the first scene of the play, Caesar is fresh from destroying the sons of the previous emperor, Pompey, in the Battle of Munda, the last battle against the optimates of the old Roman Republic. Caesar has been anointed the “perpetual dictator” of Rome, a dictator with no term limit. He is slated to become king. But there have been no kings in Rome, not since Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and that was in 495 B.C.E., over four centuries ago, and most of the Roman senators and tribunes worry that Caesar will become overweeningly arrogant and sodden with his own godlike authority. Above all, most of them envy Caesar.
The assassination of Caesar leads to self-assassinations, lynchings, pogroms, purges, and civil war. The play culminates in a Jonestown-like mass suicide. The same blade that Cassius stuck into the emperor is plunged into Cassius’s own torso. He does so on his birthday. The anniversary of the day of his nativity coincides with the day of his self-imposed death. I cannot think of a clearer example of cosmic irony in Western literature than that of Cassius’s suicide—the fact that Cassius murders himself with the same blade that he sunk into the body of the Dear Leader. Titinius follows him. Brutus expires while exhaling Caesar’s name: “Caesar, now be still” [V:v]. Portia “swallows fire” [IV:iii], literally—a ghastly death that mirrors her husband’s inward bursting, his imploding. She is burning up on the inside literally; her husband is disintegrating on the inside metaphorically.
The crowd turns mobbish, and mobbishness takes over Rome. The mob tears an innocent man to pieces in the street (the Poet Cinna). This scene (Act Three, Scene Three), which quickly moves from the comic to the hideous, recalls the opening moment of the play, in which a crowd of plebeians jeers at Flavius and Murellus, sneering tribunes of the people. The point seems to be that democracy, when it uses antimonarchical means, is indistinguishable from ochlocracy. The city descends into mob violence as the result of the antimonarchical violence of the conspirators.
Until tyranny takes hold once more. Octavius, the new tyrant, and Antony are motivated not so much by revanchism, by the desire for righteous vengeance and for the restoration of the ancient regime, as by political ambition, or, what amounts to the same thing, the hatred of subjection. Their “love of Caesar” is really a lust for power or is coterminous with the lust for power. The senators fail at establishing a constitutional monarchy (assuming that this is what they desired to begin with). Such the cosmic irony of the play: One tyrant replaces the other.
The reconstitution of tyranny is brought about by rhetoric—by swaying the crowd with words. Rhetoric is the art of persuading people to do what you want them to do—not to do what you would do yourself. Rhetoric is the art is the art of persuading people to believe what you want them to believe—not to believe what you believe yourself.
When Antony says that his heart is in the coffin with Caesar, this triggers an emotional response in the audience. Brutus’s introductory speech is weak (it is logocentric). Shakespeare intentionally writes it weakly. Antony’s speech soars on the wings of pathopoeia (it is pathocentric) and thus throws the crowd into a frenzy. A classic exercise in rhetoric, pathopoeia is an emotionally provocative speech or piece of writing, the content of which is insignificant. It is not a speech in which the speaker cries, but a speech that makes the audience cry. As such, it is pure manipulation: Notice that Brutus says things that he could not possibly know—for instance, where on the body each conspirator stabbed Brutus.
The point seems to be that democracy fails. Human beings are political animals, and the lust for power supersedes the humanistic and demotic impulses. Only Brutus has a genuine love of humanity, and his role in the assassination of Caesar was motivated by a sincere desire to better the lives of the Roman people. But he is presented as politically naïve. The naïve, incautious idealist, he naïvely allows Mark Antony to speak to the crowd, which ends in Brutus, Cassius, and company being driven out of Rome. Cassius, who is much shrewder politically (he is a Realpolitiker) and politically more mature, cautions Brutus against doing so. Indeed, Cassius recommends that Antony be slaughtered along with Caesar, and Cassius knows well that slicing Antony’s throat open would have saved him and his brother-in-law from their fates. “This tongue had not offended so today,” Cassius says sneeringly to Antony, “[i]f Cassius might have ruled” [V:i]. And yet Cassius is willing to give Antony political power after the assassination is done: “Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s / In the disposing of new dignities” [III:i].
Misinterpretations surround the execution of Caesar: Not only does Brutus catastrophically underestimate Antony; Antony underestimates Cassius [I:ii]. Cassius, in turn, misapprehends Titinius, which leads to Cassius’s self-murder, and Caesar, of course, underestimates those he calls his friends. He ignores the warnings of Calphurnia, the Soothsayer, and Artemidorus.
This leads one to wonder if Brutus did not overestimate the tyrannical nature of Caesar. The entire argument for Caesar’s assassination is based on a surmise, a conjecture, a speculation: “So Caesar may. / Then lest he may, prevent” [II:i]. Epexegesis: In other words, Caesar might become an unbearable tyrant; therefore, he will become an unbearable tyrant. The justification after the deed: Caesar would have become an intolerable tyrant, if he were allowed to live. One is reminded of the question asked in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?” Many would answer, “Yes.” Yet the argument that Caesar would have become a brutal tyrant and the Romans would have become slaves is a specious one.
It is the Iago-like Cassius who seduces Brutus into murdering Caesar in a way that is similar to the way in which Iago inveigled Othello into committing uxoricide. Cassius presents himself as Brutus’s own “glass” [I:ii], as both the mirror and the image that appears within the mirror, as the speculum and his specular image, as his replica, as his double, as his simulation, as the reflective surface by which Brutus is able to see himself—as the only means by which Brutus is able to see himself—and as his own reflection. Cassius imposes upon Brutus’s mind the plan to commit tyrannicide. He insinuates his own thoughts into the mind of Brutus.
(Let me remark parenthetically that Cassius even sounds like Iago. His “If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius, / He should not humour me” [I:ii] proleptically anticipates Iago’s “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.” The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will be written five years later.)
Brutus has a divided self. A fractured self. On the one hand, he has genuine affection for Caesar; on the other, a ghostly, anonymous, impersonal voice has colonized his mind and is commanding him to kill a man toward whom he bears no ill will: “[F]or my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn at him / But for the general” [II:i]. From an external perspective, he is a freedom fighter who believes that a constitutional monarchy would be better for the Roman people than a tyranny—but this idea is not his own and does not correspond to his feelings. This self-division would explain why Brutus, with a guilty conscience, proposes to carve up Caesar’s body as if it were a feast for the gods rather than hew his body as if it were a meal for the hounds [II:i]. But what is the difference, ultimately? Killing is killing, knifing is knifing, hacking is hacking, shanking is shanking.
Shakespeare teaches us, around the same time that he begins work on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that there is no such thing as a unified personality—that every subjectivity is fractured and complexly self-contradictory and self-contradictorily complex. Indeed, Brutus’s soliloquy is the precursor to Hamlet’s more famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Whether or not to kill himself is not yet the question; the question is whether or not to kill Caesar. Rather than ask “To be or not to be,” Brutus asks, in effect, “Should Caesar be, or should Caesar no longer be?” Brutus’s “[T]here’s the question” [II:i] forecasts Hamlet’s “That is the question.” Brutus, as the proto-Hamlet, is speaker and listener at the same time. He affects himself.
No wonder that Portia, Brutus’s wife, gives herself a “voluntary wound” in the thigh [II:i]. She is mutilating herself literally, whereas Brutus is mutilating himself metaphorically. She is a cutter, but so is Brutus. Her self-cutting mirrors his self-cutting. It is disappointing that this scene was cut from the 1953 and 1970 film versions of the play.
No wonder that Brutus will suppress his feelings for his wife after she kills herself: “Speak no more of her” [IV:iii], he says with mock coldness to Messala. He suppresses his feelings for the emperor, after all. But this does not mean that Brutus is cold-blooded; far from it. I believe Brutus when he says to Portia that she is as “dear to [him] as are the ruddy drops / [t]hat visit [his] sad heart” [II:i]. He is a Roman Stoic (with Platonist leanings), and Stoics do not betray their feelings—another sign that Brutus is divided against himself.
Not merely is Brutus divided into warring factions; Rome is divided into warring factions. When Brutus says in Act Two, Scene One that “the state of man” is suffering “the nature of an insurrection,” he is referring both to himself and to Rome. Two acts later: As the conspirators run for their lives and fight from the outside, Octavius, the adopted son of Caesar, comes to Rome, and Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus form an unholy triumvirate and will divide the spoils between them after the defeat of their enemies. “Happy day,” indeed [V:v]! It is clear that Antony is planning to kill Lepidus once Lepidus has stopped being useful to him. He expends more words on his horse and on asinine and equine similes than he does on the serviceable Lepidus himself:
Octavius, I have seen more days than you; / And though we lay these honours on this man / To ease ourselves of diverse slanderous loads, / He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold, / To groan and sweat under the business, / Either led or driven, as we point the way: / And having brought our treasure where we will, / Then take we down his load and turn him off, / Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears / And graze in commons… Do not talk of him / But as a property [IV:i].
Not only that: Antony threatens to curtail the benefits to the Roman people that were promised in Caesar’s will (a stimulus package for every Roman, access to Caesar’s once-private gardens and orchards)—the promise of these benefits ferments and foments the crowd, turning the crowd into a mob. (The word mob comes from the Latin mobilis, which means “movable,” and is etymologically connected to the words mobile and mobilize. A mob is a crowd in action.) Antony says to Octavius and Lepidus: “[W]e shall determine / How to cut off some charge in legacies” [IV:i]. In other words, we will reduce the number of drachmas that every Roman was promised and perhaps repossess the gardens and orchards that we promised them, as well.
Within the factions, there are factions: Cassius and Brutus squabble as if they were fractious luchadores in the third scene of the fourth act. Mark Antony and Octavius disagree on who should move to the left in the first scene of the fifth act:
ANTONY: Octavius, lead your battle softly on, / Upon the left hand of the even field.
OCTAVIUS: Upon the right hand I. Keep thou the left.
ANTONY: Why do you cross me in this exigent?
OCTAVIUS: I do not cross you: but I will do so.
Let us not forget the intrusions of the supernatural / the intimations of the supernatural: The lioness that whelps in the street [II:ii]. The graves that yawn and yield up their dead [II:ii]. The nightbird that hoots and shrieks at noon in the marketplace [I:iii]. (Why no filmmaker, as far as I know, has represented these oneiric images is a mystery to me.) The lightning storms that frame the conspiracy to dispatch Caesar—in the third scene of the first act and in the second scene of the second act. Calphurnia listens to the thunder and studies the lightning and interprets these as fatidic signs, as if she were a ceraunomancer (someone who divines supernatural or transcendent meaning from the heavens) [II:ii]. Cassius is a ceraunologist (someone who poetically or pseudoscientifically compares the movements of the heavens with worldly events): He sees the “dreadful night / [t]hat thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars” [I:iii] as the celestial complement to Caesar’s unnamed worldly violence. The ghosts, the supernaturalized beasts, the signs of the heavens that are interpreted as wonders or metaphors: The point of the supernatural is to call into question the tyrannicide.
The self-murder, the military violence, the mobbishness, the madness, the pandemonium, the infantile squabbling, the familial betrayals, the portents, the interference of the supernatural—all of this issues from the killing of Caesar or from the conspiracy to kill Caesar. All of these are symptoms of a disease brought on by the pathogenic act of violence against the emperor. Shakespeare would seem to agree with Goethe, who claimed that the murder of Caesar is “the most absurd act that ever was committed”; for Goethe, this act proved that even the best of the Romans did not understand what government is for (Nachgelassene Werke, xiii, p. 68). Seen from this perspective, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a politically reactionary play, one that justifies authoritarian dictatorship, if not outright tyranny. Again, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most politically conservative plays, second only to The Tragedy of Coriolanus, one of the most reactionary plays ever written.
If the play is politically ambiguous (neither endorsing statism nor rejecting it), then why do we see so little evidence of Caesar’s unbearable tyranny? The play shows us more instances of Caesar’s feebleness than of his tyrannousness (all in the second scene of the first act): Caesar’s epileptic fit in the marketplace, his poor hearing, his feverishness in Spain, his near-drowning in the Tiber. Save for the sole instance of the banishment of Publius Cimber, there is no evidence that Caesar is oppressive. There is much more evidence that the play condemns the assassination of Caesar than there is evidence that the play takes a neutral stance on the assassination. Indeed, one could write, without fear of repudiation, that the play takes a stand against the assassination of Julius Caesar—and thus, a stand against the overthrow of authoritarian dictatorships.
Despite its title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not the tragedy of Julius Caesar. Caesar only has 130 lines and, in spite of what Whoopi Goldberg claims, does not die at the end of the play, but in the middle. The execution of Caesar divides the text into two parts: the first deals with the motives behind the deed; the second deals with its consequences. It is the tragedy not of Caesar, but of Brutus, whose desires are not his own and who is not his own.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar anticipates its reception by future audiences. Like the atrociously underrated Troilus and Cressida (1602), characters are conscious that they are the unreal representations of real historical human beings. In Troilus and Cressida, Achilles spreads the fake news that “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain,” and the reader / the spectator gets the impression that Achilles is aware that the legend will be printed and become historical. In Julius Caesar, characters (Cassius and Brutus) are conscious that the play will be performed for centuries after the death of their author in countless different languages. Cassius: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?” [III:i]. And why else would Brutus’s final words be retained, untranslated, in the original Latin? The characters look backward into the dizzying abyss of history.
Did Shakespeare ever anticipate that Caesar would be costumed as a buffoon?
To return to the Central Park staging of Julius Caesar: There are at least three reasons why Caesar has nothing in common with Trump.
Reason One: Trump panders, but does not debase himself
Caesar debases himself at Lupercalia, the Festival of the Wolf, by refusing a crown that is offered to him three times and—after swooning, foaming at the mouth, and falling in the public square—by begging “wenches” in the street for forgiveness [I:ii]. (Lupercalia took place on 15 February on the Roman calendar and celebrated Lupa, the lactating Wolf Goddess who suckled Romulus and Remus in the cave of Lupercal, and the Goat God Lupercus, the God of Shepherds.) But his self-debasement is staged. It is the staged inversion of relations between the powerful and the powerless. It is not genuine, sincere self-mortification. His repeated refusal of the crown, in particular, is what rhetoricians call accismus: the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.
Caesar is beloved of the people (we see this in the first scene of the play). There is no question that Caesar was friendlier to the people than his predecessor, Pompey. According to Suetonius, Caesar supported the plebeians and the tribunes, who represented the interests of the people. Caesar endorsed the redistribution of land and opposed the optimates, who wanted to limit the power of the plebeians. He was called a popularis for a reason. Pompey, on the other hand, favored a much stricter authoritarian rule.
Trump styled himself as a populist political candidate, and this no doubt contributed to his triumph over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment Democratic candidate in November 2016. Is Trump, then, a man of the people in the way that Caesar was a man of the people?
Trump’s language is the language of the people—of inarticulate, slow-witted people. His grammatical skills are those of an unremarkable eleven-year-old boy, according to a 2016 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. He used a relatively sophisticated language in the 1980s and 1990s, however. Many of his sentences had an admirable rotundity—for instance, “It could have been a contentious route” and “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated” (qtd. in Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?” STAT, 23 May 2017). While campaigning for the presidency, his verbal skills appeared to decompose. On 30 December 2015, Trump peacocked to a South Carolinian crowd: “I’m very highly educated. I know words. I know the best words.” He might have dumbed down his language for purely political reasons, for purely demotic purposes. This has the effect of flattering those with low linguistic skills.
Dumbing down, however, is not self-abasement. Trump never speaks in a self-deprecating manner. He never displays the false humility of Caesar. Trump reflects the vulgarity, the vaingloriousness, the cupidity, and the rapacity of the crowd. He is endlessly trumpeting his own excellence. He does not debase himself. He represents himself as someone who demands that his glistening manliness be acknowledged and respected.
Reason Two: Trump is not constant
Caesar is nothing if not pertinacious. Trump is nothing if not inconstant.
Caesar holds on to his decision to banish Publius Cimber, despite the senators’ entreaties to rescind his banishment. He is as “constant as the northern star” [III:i]. Suetonius praised Caesar for his steadfastness.
Trump, on the other hand, is a syrupy waffle. He has waffled on the travel ban and on the unbuilt Mexico-American Wall. Incidentally, Trump loves waffles “when they’re done properly with butter and syrup.” He rhapsodized: “There’s nothing better than properly done waffles with butter and syrup all over them.”
Reason Three: Trump is the betrayer, not the betrayed
Julius Caesar was betrayed by his intimates, even by his favorite, Brutus. Though I cannot find the source of this citation, I remember reading a saying attributed to Caesar: “Against my enemies my guards can protect me; against my friends, they can do nothing.” This saying has been repeated, without acknowledgement, by Voltaire (“Let God defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies”) and Charlotte Brontë: “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”
Trump, on the other hand, has betrayed members of his inner circle—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, James Comey, Sally Yates, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon—in a series of Night of the Long Knives-style purges. One thinks of The Apprentice’s slogan and mantra: “You’re fired.” I am writing this paragraph on 18 August 2017, the day on which Bannon’s faux-resignation has been announced. Who else in his administration will Trump have fired by the time you read my words?
Trump shares nothing with the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare. There is nothing wrong with contemporizing art—I myself have done this with Hedda Gabler—but there must be reasons for specific contemporizations. Those who believe that Julius Caesar can be reasonably dressed up as Donald Trump are the same people who think that a text-message Hamlet or a dubstep Macbeth is a good idea. I have descanted at length on the play’s political stance: If the staging equates Trump to Caesar, then Trump is exonerated by the production. The Central Park performance of the play unintentionally defends Trump.
Consumer culture idolizes the ordinary. To use Adorno and Horkheimer’s language in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the trumpery of the culture industry “heroizes the average.” In this culture, which is gradually becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth, untalented filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino are hailed as geniuses, whereas visionaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni as written off as boring. Incompetent writers such as David Foster Wallace are lionized, while truly great writers such as James Joyce are blithely dismissed as “pretentious.” Even worse, the works of both filmmakers / writers are sometimes leveled off, as if they were of equal quality. Along the same lines: Trump is screened through Shakespeare not because Shakespeare represents the highest values and Trump represents the lowest values, but because the highest values have no meaning in a culture in which the low trumps the high. In the Central Park staging of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Trump is not vaunted to the heights of Shakespeare; Shakespeare is dumbed down to the status of Trump. Why is this? In consumer culture, what is low is elevated and what is high is degraded.
By Joseph Suglia
Hello David, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
I was born and brought up in Glasgow, went to Glasgow University where I studied English and French then went down to Oxford where I wrote a D.Phil on an obscure 18th century Frenchman. During my time as a graduate student in Oxford I also worked for a year teaching English in Paris. Since then I’ve worked in a variety of Universities including Swansea and Salford. And since 1990 I’ve been back in Glasgow teaching first French and now Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde. I live with my partner, Eric, in Mount Florida near ‘the home of Scottish football’.
When did you first realise you were a poet?
My grandfather was the Scottish poet, William Jeffrey (1898-1946). I remember my gran, Margaret Jeffrey, telling me about him when I was a child and maybe that subconsciously confirmed something in me. I don’t think there was any kind of ‘road to Damascus’ experience though. I just started writing (very bad and very long) poems as a teenager and have never really stopped. Writing poems that is…pace the ‘very bad and very long’!
A Family Portrait
After she had died in childbirth,
Anne Nisbet’s husband, John Glassford,
first tobacco lord of Glasgow,
turned to the family portrait in his living room
and dug paint out of the weave that made her face.
Taking a piece of sourdough bread
he cleaned the vacant spot
then had the artist affix his third wife’s
head to Anne’s still serviceable torso.
She did not leave entirely
and tells me how she never left
the mansion’s orchard, stood
for centuries among the shades of apple
trees and leaves that whispered in the modern city’s
traffic, gazing in through absent windows
towards the place she knew the portrait had been hung.
But I could go, she said, stand before it and wave
back the dust, coax her features from shadows
that once had lips, a smile, a gaze directed at her husband.
And I could point too at the little black slave,
Josiah, whose face a later hand
had darkened further into drapery and a hollow
space whose emptiness echoed with a city’s shame.
Once he ran away: in a brown freeze coat
and a blue waistcoat, with little Scots
or English. He was described as ‘knockneed’
and just fifteen. Their lineaments linger
in the flakes, the scalings and blisterings
of time, remembered now and then
by ghosts like us before we fade
as well and the cities change again.
Which poets inspired you at the beginning & who today?
When I was at school I developed a crush on T.S.Eliot. Then I moved on to Auden for a while. My English teachers at Glasgow Uni really opened my ears to the wonderful poetry of the Renaissance and 17th century and I have an abiding love of Andrew Marvell, John Donne and Henry Vaughan. I keep going back to Marvell in particular, one of the most musical poets. In French, Ronsard was also important for me, as were Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Valéry and Francis Ponge. Rimbaud especially. If I had any moment of ‘revelation’ when I kind of saw a way forward for myself in terms of my own voice and identity as a poet it was in Paris in the late eighties when I read Rimbaud alongside Whitman and the Portuguese poet, Eugenio de Andrade. Quite a lot of prose-poetry came out of that combination. Today, these same poets remain with me. Others have joined me along the way, too many to mention them all of course but among the older generations in no particular order: Hugh MacDiarmid, Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan, Thom Gunn, James Merrill, Derek Mahon, Douglas Dunn, Michel Deguy, Yves Bonnefoy, Josée Lapeyrère, Rilke, Lorca, Jorie Graham, Elizabeth Bishop, Les Murray, Barry MacSweeney, Zbigniew Herbert, F.R. Langley…I read a fair amount of non-fiction and get as much inspiration there as from poetry. Derek Jarman’s cinema was also a major influence.
What compels you to create a poem?
There’s no set pattern or set of circumstances. But a need to clarify something to myself initially: this needn’t take the form of an idea or even an emotion or combination of the two. Maybe it’s more a need to clarify, to give shape to particular sensations and intuitions that say something about what it’s like to be alive now, in the present moment. Then the attempt to communicate this experience to others in ways they may be able to relate to. Poetry can be a way of finding out about the world but it can also be a kind of conductor of being. I think it’s taken me a long time to -only partially- understand the latter dimension.
What does David Kinloch like to do when he’s not being poetic?
My tastes are fairly ordinary. I work a lot and much of that is not about poetry at all but about communicating stuff to others and helping to make organisations and events of one kind or another happen. Otherwise I listen to a lot of music, mainly but not exclusively, classical, although there I think there is probably some poetic stuff going on in the background. I also love to travel. I love big foreign cities although in recent years I’ve spent a lot of time walking in the east neuk of Fife. Family and friends are essential. Oh, and I like boxing or slamming big heavy leather balls onto the floor of the gym.
You are currently the professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. How are you finding the job & what enthusiasm for poetry do you find among the students of 2017?
The job is quite demanding. We have a lot of creative writing students and not very many colleagues to teach them. As I’ve got older I have come to really enjoy (most) of the teaching I do and regard it as probably the most important aspect of my life. I used to think it was the poetry. That’s still important to me but it’s trumped by the pleasure of being able to pass on my own enthusiasms and knowledge. I’ve grown to enjoy it more as I’ve become more experienced.I find the students mostly very open-minded and receptive. Many tell me quite frankly at the start they’ve ‘never understood poetry’ but then it turns out half way through the course that quite a lot of them do write poetry and that gives us a good place to work from.
We saw the pelicans nesting on the lamposts.
Little bits of bad luck
spilled from their pouch-mouths
and drifted among the traffic,
catching smoking drivers by surprise,
making them swear. The pelicans
swore too: great barks
like belches seeking a nose.
The pelicans looked comfortable
and lonely. Ignored by everyone
they were the cause of everything:
the way the cycle lanes interrupted
the bridge which opened up
the pea-broth, iron-clad canal;
the way the right way went crooked
for us to the station so we missed
our train back to the dull resort.
You have just released In Search of Dustie-Flute with Carcanet. How are you finding working with one of the country’s leading poetry presses?
I’ve published books with Carcanet since 2001 and am grateful for their advocacy. They’ve allowed me, mostly, to shape my own books and given me the freedom to experiment when I need to. That’s something I value enormously.
This is your fifth book with Carcanet. How has the evolutionary process as a poet been in this time?
Well, it’s actually my fourth with Carcanet. My first book was published by Polygon in 1994. Evolutionary process? That’s a very hard question to answer briefly though it echoes a question Stuart Kelly put to me at the book’s recent launch at the Edinburgh Book Festival. He suggested I started off as rather a baroque, expansive poet and had become more ‘honed’. I think he meant maybe I’ve just stopped writing such long, bad poems! It’s about listening with your inner ear, about finding a specific pitch or tone in terms of form and music. In terms of subject matter, I tend to write less about sex and more about art these days. Which is -sadly/thankfully- maybe just part of the ageing process. Actually, having just said that I think am going to have to try and reverse that particular evolution!
We crouched among the men with guns; silence
paused. Then, we smelt the air lightening
—a bouquet of ozone up from the port—flinched
at the sudden crash of sealed-up doors.
And stood again to crane and jostle
as the figures paced through the forum.
First, a slave girl, black as a shining moon.
Two statuettes of boy kings holding hands.
A gladiator spearing a vanished enemy.
A satyr. A Zeus. A discus thrower.
A sphinx as crippled and slow as us.
A stone maiden carrying a jar
full of the incense of spring meadows.
At night, we followed their procession
to the harbour and an ancient ship
where mist or a kind of gauze
wrapped and stowed them carefully.
The sea yawned like a snake.
The captain we could not see
cried like a bird and cast off.
In the morning all was gone.
And we knealt again.
What are the stand-out continuous themes running through your work?
Loss. All of my books are about loss of one kind or another. Although I try to wear the elegiac cast with humour. After that it would be sexual orientation, gender and ekphrasis (or writing about art).
What is the poetical future of David Kinloch?
To my surprise I’ve started to write a play so maybe I am about to evolve into another creature altogether.
The Studio Theatre @ the EIBF
The ‘Sound of Breath’ hour I recently experienced at the EIBF was essentially about the pause – sometimes percussive, sometimes silent – that moment in poetry & music which breaks the mood & elevates the spiritual awareness of the voyeur. Chaired by David Fuller, we would spend a wonderful & informative hour with composer Sally Beamish, & poet Michael Symmons Roberts, ‘two distinguished practitioners‘ of their craft as Fuller gleefully told us. Indeed, both are quite polymathic, with novels & concertos & the such like bounding about their brains, we – & the subject – were definitely in capable hands.
What followed was an informative tour of each other’s backstories, where moments of the breath’s effect on composition were most noticeable. Beamish recalled an anonymous Tuscan text which inspired a lullaby she had composed, whole Roberts described, with much animation, the lungs & larynx of Byron being preserved in Missolonghi. Symmons also chipped into the ongoing argument which says that spoken poetry is best only on the lips of the original poet, by denying this & declaring ‘some poets are terrible readers of their own work.’ Beamish agreed, & explained that writing poetry is rather like composing a score, & different levels of performer may bring the music to life. All in all, I witnessed a fascinating artistic conversation between two proud & passionate protagonists of their individual art, who descried that it is better that we all learn to breathe together.
Reviewer : Damo