Avoiding Reader’s Block

An Interview with John Glenday

/ by Richie McCaffery

John Glenday is a Scottish poet who is chiefly known for the power of his lyrical poetry, which has earned him many prizes, such as the Roehampton Poetry Prize and Poetry Society Recommendations. He has also been shortlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize, the Ted Hughes Award and the Saltire Society Poetry Prize. He has published four collections, two with the now-defunct Peterloo Poets: The Apple Ghost (1989) and Undark (1995) and two with Picador: Grain (2009) and The Golden Mean (2015). Glenday’s work is characterized by its meticulous craftsmanship and despite being a poet of marked achievement, Glenday is always extremely modest in conversation. He lives with his German wife, Erika, in the Scottish Highlands, where he worked as an addictions counsellor before retiring. In the following interview, he reflects on his work as a poet, art, editing, place and translation, as well as despairing of the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.


Richie McCaffery (RM): Is there, for you, a link between the daily work you did as an NHS addictions counsellor and your poetry? I’m thinking of the Dutch poet Rutger Kopland (one of my favorites), who worked as a psychiatrist and thought that scientific research and the writing of a poem were very similar. Would you say there’s something about poets who work by day with the mind and also delve into the mind in their poetry? I’m sure all poets are influenced by their work – even if it’s Larkin’s ‘toad work’ and he wanted to escape from it – but would you say it is different for someone who essentially works with the mind all the time?


John Glenday (JG): My first instinct was to say no, that my writing has always been an escape from the day job, but thinking back on it, yes, there is a link, in perhaps two different ways. Firstly, you’ve got to like folk, and enjoy listening to their stories to be a counsellor of any kind. And everyone, eventually, has their story to tell, and at the heart of that story, as often as not, you’ll find the metaphor that drives it all – the child abandoned on a beach by his drug addled father; the ghost of a mother who died too soon. I think one thing my work taught me was that the world is mostly filled with good people dealing with bad problems. I liked the way the drug users I worked with were utterly indifferent to poetry, for the most part, until they ended up in prison, then the poetry would flow…


RM: What’s it like living in Drumnadrochit in the Scottish Highlands? Are you a poet who feels the need to connect to nature and the countryside? Is place very important to you?


JG: Drumnadrochit is at the heart of one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland – Loch Ness on your doorstep; stunning hills a few miles up the road. Rural living has its downside, as well – that four-hour journey to the Big City is a real pain in winter.

The natural world is everywhere in my poems, but as often as not it isn’t the world, it’s somewhere very similar that stands for the world. I can’t help it – the five senses turn the world from actual to metaphor. So the Highlands are in my poetry, but only because they serve another purpose. I find I write about a landscape better when I’m not there. I need distance to describe the world in a poem.

In Paris, France, Gertrude Stein wrote that writers need two countries: the one where they belong and the one where they live really…” She describes the second as the romantic one – “it is not real, but it is really there.” I’m not sure which country is the more important one – the actual or the metaphorical – the one where we cast a shadow, or the one that casts its shadow over us? The answer, of course, is both.


RM: Your poems show evidence of some profound reading but they are not in the slightest bit difficult. Sometimes very cerebral poetry can be a rather self-indulgent exercise in hopping between the poem and the notes at the back of the book. But your work seems to have married emotion and intellect very agreeably, do you see one keeping the other in check in a poem?


JG: I think there are two elements to that question: firstly, I hope my poetry isn’t difficult, at least not at the superficial level, because I believe, as Ezra Pound did, that hard work by the writer makes easier work for the reader. I’m extremely finicky with my drafts, endlessly changing lines, reworking the clauses or punctuation, reading the poem out loud to myself again and again and again so I can hear where the friction is generated in the lines. So what I’m trying to say – the initial intellectual drive of the poem, if you like – is softened through revision. I like to think of the poem as a timepiece, like John Harrison’s marine chronometer. If the components are engineered carefully enough, if every moving part is doing its work perfectly and elegantly, if the interior frictions are as minimal as possible, if poem can continue to function in all imaginable weathers, then it will not just tell us the time, but our longitude too – the well fashioned poem can also tell us where we are in the world.

I also work very hard to give my poems an emotional ballast, and then I work even harder to hide that, using the usual techniques of distancing, close-focusing, restraint, depersonalization (remember that the writer on the page, and at a reading isn’t presenting themselves, they’re representing themselves) as if the poem were trying its very best not to say what it’s saying.


RM: My first contact with your work was nearly a decade ago now, when you gave a reading at the University of Stirling (I was an undergraduate there at the time). I remember you reading your poem “The Apple Ghost” and I was immediately sold. A couple days after the reading, I was in the university library hunting for your books and found Undark. I read the title poem and was absolutely floored by it – I was only just starting to formulate my own opinions about poetry, but I knew, as if by instinct, that this was a brilliant poem. It remains one of my all-time favorites. Can you please tell me some of the backstory to “The Apple Ghost” and “Undark?”


JG: Ah, “The Apple Ghost” was one of those “given” poems, those rare poems that arrive all but unbidden. I was staying with my then wife in her mother’s house in Nairn – that tired, seaside holiday town in the north of Scotland so beloved of Chaplin. The house was tired too – going a bit to seed since my father in law’s death some four years before. I’d never met him, but there were photographs of him throughout the house. Such a sense of presence unpresent! Just as in the poem, we slept in an attic room, with the scent of stored apples drifting from a nearby hall cupboard. In the morning, the poem wrote itself.


“Undark,” I’m ashamed to admit, was a poem of utter desperation. I’d finished my second manuscript and my lovely, patient editor, Harry Chambers, had given me an extra week or so to polish it some more. It carried some dire, pretentious provisional title, but I’d come across the trade name “Undark” somewhere – an old textbook I think – and it fitted so well with the tone of the collection, with all the recurrences of lightness and dark, that I hastily wrote a poem to justify using it as the title. Literally in an evening, I seem to remember. But perhaps that’s the way the better poems arise – they aren’t written, but discovered in a process of desperate, panicky revelation. Both of these poems transcribed themselves, almost despite my help.


RM: To follow up on the previous question, you seem to have a knack for knowing which of your poems are particularly outstanding as lodestones for each new collection – I’m thinking of the title poems to The Apple Ghost, Undark and Grain. Would you say you’re a good judge of your own work?


JG: I’m actually a terrible judge of my own poems. At first, like a doting father, I’m far too fond of them to exercise any sort of objective judgement, and then as they mature, we fall out, either because I have something else to say, or because the poem has nothing else to tell me. I tend to rate them by the length of time it takes for this to happen. Most of my poems are fortnight poems. There are still a few early works that remain on speaking terms with me, but very few. There are other poems I’ve always been uncomfortable with – they contain flaws I’ve never been able to eradicate or obscure. I’m astonished when people compliment me on these, or quote from them because to me they are poor, broken things. “Concerning the Atoms of the Soul” is one such poem. I still enjoy the narrative (though it’s pretty much all Lucretius), but it’s such a frail timepiece – I’m always having to shake it to start it ticking again.


RM: Light seems to be one of the main recurrent themes of your work – all of your collections are shot through with it – “Matchsafe” and “Pint of Light” from The Golden Mean, “The Ugly” and “For Lucie” from Grain, for example. You are a great lyricist of light – but poems like “Undark” and “The Darkroom” show us that this appreciation of light is always framed by an awareness of darkness or death – in “Windfall” you write “What is love if it is not an unravelling / against the dark?” Do you see most of your poems in this almost Manichean struggle between life and death, light and dark – like Hamish Henderson’s “Flyting o’ Life and Daith?”


JG: Light is the heart and beginning of everything. God knows that. But it’s not a simple case of documenting the continuous battle of light against darkness. Everything is nothing unless it contains it’s opposite. Darkness is as important, and as beautiful and intriguing as light. I once wrote a poem that arose from Magritte’s “The Empire of Lights” – a painting which depicts a house in darkness under a daylight sky. Magritte spoke about that painting (there were many versions of it) saying he didn’t know which he liked better – light or darkness – so he put them both in the one painting. As a writer, the white page terrifies me; as a human being, my own shadow reassures me. The light illuminates the world for us, but the shadows give it depth.


RM: In all of your collections – particularly Undark with its many poems after paintings by Magritte – there are ekphrastic poems, or poems inspired by works of art. Is art a big source of inspiration to you as a poet? I’m also thinking of your collaborations with Reinhard Behrens and poems such as “The House at Boreraig” (from The Apple Ghost). I think I can also spot the influence of Behrens on your remarkable poem “Tin” from Grain – those arctic scenes of doomed explorers “drifting quietly northwest by north / towards the scooped shale of their graves,” but I may well be wrong.


JG: I wish I’d been an artist rather than a poet – all that work without a single word in it! Paintings are a constant source of inspiration for me but I’m never really describing the scene – the poem is, in effect, a flight from the image. Or to paraphrase Tracey Emin, the poem isn’t about the painting, it starts with the painting.


No, you’re right. “Tin” is very much a Behrens poem. He started off as an archaeological illustrator so his work has always resonated with me, because poetry, as we all know, is really a form of archaeology. We want to talk about lives lived, and do so by describing the objects that survive of that time – metaphors of course. In poetry as in the past, it is things that tell us most about people. That’s why, when a visitor commented on the number of archaeological artefacts in his office, Freud replied that he always needed “an object to love.”


RM: This is a bit more of a clichéd question – what’s your writing routine like, do you have such a thing? Are you a poet of the Ian Hamilton-esque “miraculous lyrical arrival,” or are you a determined craftsman like George Mackay Brown, sitting down each day and staying put until something is written? I remember reading a funny dual interview you gave with your editor at Picador, Don Paterson. Paterson was talking about having to chivvy the poems out of you. My thinking is that your collections typically need a long gestation period. Do you think there’s too much pressure in the poetry world to always be putting work out there?


JG: I’m much more determined in my writing these days, but I’ve always been terrible at sitting down with a pen when the inside of my head is as white as the paper. Poems still come pretty slowly, but I don’t mind. There are plenty enough mediocre poems out there for me to worry about churning out a few more. So it’s not writer’s block which worries me, but reader’s block. You know the difference, of course - with writer’s block we stare at the empty page wishing there was a poem on it, while with reader’s block, someone reads the poem and wishes it were an empty page. I’d rather be accused of the former any day!


Don is a marvelous, patient, painstaking editor. I’m very lucky in that respect. I’ve speeded up a bit over the years, but I am still terribly reliant on the miraculous arrival. Of course when I’m teaching, I say the opposite because I know it’s true: inspiration isn’t the starting point, it’s something that tends to arise when we find ourselves writing. The words always come first. So I do have set times I sit at my desk to write, but if the new words aren’t there, I’ll dig out an old draft and tinker with it – that often works. There’s a sort of secondary inspiration which is generated by working on a draft. It’s to do with the difficulties of language forcing us to take a new viewpoint, a new direction, I suppose.


As an old-fashioned writer, I prefer to work almost entirely on the computer – longhand is only for field notebooks and revising texts. I think typescript invariably looks like a real poem, however underdeveloped it might be, and I can make out the arising shape of the poem much more clearly. So for each redrafting, I print out the poem, annotate in pencil, (which mostly involves removing phrases and words), type up the changes, print it out again, and so on, and on, and on. Once the poem is finished (that is, abandoned…) I staple all the drafts together, from first to final, and end up with a thing like a flicker book I can riffle through to watch how the poem shrivels towards completion. I sometimes joke that a novelist judges a successful day by the number of words they write; the poet by the number of words they throw away.


RM: Speaking of Don Paterson, what was it like working with your first editor, the late Harry Chambers of Peterloo Poets? My question is two-fold – I’m firstly asking because Harry Chambers was the first supportive voice I ever heard in the poetry world – I won a prize run by the Peterloo Press when I was in my late teens and he sent me a wonderfully encouraging, handwritten letter. Secondly I’m asking because I feel as a poet that I need a strong editorial presence – I need someone to tell me what’s good and bad in my work. I don’t imagine this is the same for you?


JG: Harry was wonderful. I owe him so much for taking that first ridiculous risk with my work. He was a hands-off editor and apart from the odd comment on the relative strength or weakness of particular poems, and a yes/no over the title, would leave me to get on with it – he would even insist I wrote my own blurbs for the back cover. I can remember with “Undark” I thought I’d test him by including the very tongue-in-cheek line “…the Carnoustie perspective of the American Civil War…,” only to find it reproduced, word for word, on the finished book.


I too need a strong editorial presence, and I thank heaven that my current editor, Don Paterson, will dedicate so much time to discussing the manuscript – I think we spent about eight hours face to face with the last book. He has such a marvelous eye for poetry and his attention to detail is phenomenal – right down to “…so are you really keen on that comma there, John?”


RM: I admire your dedication to the lyric form as a poet, but have you ever been tempted to write anything else? Do you, for instance, ever translate poetry?


JG: I love translating poetry. Only hindered by the fact I’m not fluent in any language other than English. But I’ve done a fair bit of work from literal/bridge translations, which I find intriguing. I’ve worked in close collaboration with poets from Kurdistan and Iraq on a translation exchange program, and subsequently collaborated with the Iraqi poet Ghareeb Iskander on an English version of his collection, Gilgamesh’s Snake and other poems. At the moment I’m working on the Kazakh poetry of Mukaghali Makataev and Ulugbek Esdaulet. I’m afraid I’m quite cavalier in my versioning – although I’ll spend considerable time discussing the interpretation and accuracy, in the end, it’s the new poem that I hold allegiance to. If the thing that emerges from the process of translation isn’t a ‘real’ poem, then I’ve failed. My personal Book of the Year has been Iain Galbraith’s luminous translations of Jan Wagner’s “Self Portrait with a Swarm of Bees.” I keep going back to those translations. I recently memorized “Guericke’s Sparrow,” because I was so covetous of its insights and beauty. But that’s the wonderful thing about poetry – the reader can steal any poem they wish, simply by remembering it, although they might find The Divine Comedy slightly more difficult to pocket.


RM: In Grain you have a poem in Scots entitled “The Lily,” yet Scots is not generally present in your work. How do you feel about writing in Scots? I’m thinking of the backlash against it after the Scottish Renaissance of Hugh MacDiarmid and his followers. By the later 1970s and into the 1980s Scots almost seemed rather unfashionable and you had poets like Kathleen Jamie who were initially critical of it as being “twee” and “fey” but who went on to rejuvenate Scots in the 1990s by using it in their own poems. What’s your stance?


JG: Many years ago I wrote more in Scots, thanks to my first tutor in poetry, the wonderful Harvey Holton, who was an inspiration to me. I still do occasionally, but seldom. Now I salt my poems with the odd Scots word, partly because there often isn’t a direct English equivalent, and partly as a subversive act. When I was in primary school we were strenuously encouraged not to use Scots words or pronunciation because it was “common.” “The Lily,” of course, is a translation from the Italian of Donatella Bisutti, via an English bridge translation. I felt it was crying out to be expressed in Scots.


RM: Lastly, a political question. When I contacted you to arrange this interview, you spoke admiringly about Versopolis, as an important EU initiative. How important is the EU (say, as a platform for the exchange of cultural riches between countries) for you? Can I ask what your reaction to the Brexit vote was, and where you see Scotland standing after Brexit finally happens?


JG: My reaction to the Brexit vote was one of utter dismay. Yes, times are difficult just now, there are many challenges for Europe - the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, cheap, populist politics which seeks easy answers to complex issues and the rise of a bombastic, narcissistic US President intent on buying Scotland golf course by golf course; but is the appropriate response to retreat into our shell? I thought that was something only mollusks and turtles did. Any country which turns inwards, whether by burning books or bridges, can only be diminishing itself.


I enjoy being a European. My wife is German, we have children living in Switzerland and Italy, we travel frequently in Europe, I have a healthy proportion of European poetry on my shelves. That’s how it should be. An artist worth their salt should always be looking outward and remain open to new ideas and fresh voices. I see no conflict here with my views on Scottish nationhood. I believe in an independent Scotland because I believe we have the right to self-determination. But I see that Scotland as closely linked, both commercially and culturally, not just with the rest of the United Kingdom but the whole of Europe.

Richie McCaffery

(b.1986) lives in Ghent, Belgium, and hails from Warkworth North of England. He lived in Scotland for a decade, where he met his wife. He graduated from the University of Glasgow with a PhD in Scottish literature. He has published two pamphlet collections of poetry – including Spinning Plates – and the collection Cairn . His next pamphlet will appear in October 2017 and he is working on a second collection, from which the poem ‘Ghent’ is taken.