Interview with Richie McCaffery
David Tait recently had the pleasure of interviewing the wonderfully talented Richie McCaffery, a young poet living in Scotland soon to have his first pamphlet published through HappenStance.
When did you start writing and how has your writing developed between then and now?
I kept one or two choice examples of my juvenalia and it really is cringy to read them now – turgid, posturing, pseudo-pantheistic rubbish but my English teacher at school, Mary Adams, was forever encouraging me. I am grateful to her too for getting me into the work of Michael Longley, who is one of my favourite poets. Just before I left school I won one of the Peterloo Poets 15-19 poetry prizes and besides the cheque for £100, it was tremendously validating just to see my work in print.
I only started sending out work about 2 years ago and I've had some successes but I've been tempted (as allegedly Craig Raine did) to decorate my toilet walls with all the rejection slips. But that's all par for the course.
You've had a deal of success of late I dare say. Would you mind telling us a little about that and what you have coming up in the future?
In April I will take up a two-week residency at Cromarty as part of The Thomas Urquhart Conference, where I hope to write some new work and present a little talk on Urquhart's lasting influence. In 2009 I was awarded an Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary and it allowed me to travel around the Hebrides, writing a sequence of poems along the way. A sheaf of these poems has just been published in the latest issue of Northwords Now. At the moment I am still writing and sending work away, my last acceptance was something of a thrill – a poem taken for The Frogmore Papers and I just got my contributor's copy of The Interpreter's House yesterday. I am mainly working towards my first pamphlet collection, possibly for publication in 2012 by HappenStance Press.
So how did the Edwin Morgan Bursary come about, and did you feel any pressure on your writing knowing that someone had paid for your trip?
One of my mentors, Rory Watson, brought my attention to the award and urged me to fire off some poems to the Arts Trust of Scotland. I forgot about it as I didn't think I stood a chance, so when the cheque came through the letter-box I was bowled over.
I certainly had panicky moments and bouts of doubt in my ability to produce anything coherent to warrant the generous bursary. A fellow recipient, JL Williams, wrote prolifically during her stay on the Aeolian Isles, and a book of those poems called 'Condition of Fire' has just been published by Shearsman. So, that has shown me up as either being rather lazy or quite costive in my poetic output – I think I got ten poems I'm happy with out of the trip. But it was definitely worth it – it rejuvenated my creative energies, gave me an amazing backdrop for my work and allowed me to go to all the little Hebridean skerries I'd always wanted to visit. I got to visit Hallaig and then, while I was cycling through Portree, I went to visit Sorley Maclean's grave. I had no idea where it was in the cemetery and just as I was about to give up I found it – he has a magnificent view across the Little Minch to Raasay, his birthplace.
I was scared that I wouldn't earn my keep and they'd ask for my bursary back but luckily I didn't suffer any creative impediments on that trip and all of the poems I wrote have found their way into print. The last two were taken each by Other Poetry and Poetry Salzburg Review.
Which poets have you been enjoying reading of late? Why does their work interest you?
There are too many to discuss in any detail but in terms of recent discoveries I've been really astonished by Andrew Waterhouse (his poem about Cuthbert's Beads is exquisite) and he was from my neck of the woods in Northumberland, so I feel an affinity with his work. I've just come across the fascinating work of another dead Novocastrian poet, Barry MacSweeney and I've been working through his 'Book of Demons' – a sprawling late utterance about the poet's travails with alcoholism. It's darkly funny and bleak and often scintillating and haunting with its insights.
At the moment I'm reading Charles Simic's early work and I'm mightily impressed – his Butcher Shop poem is masterly. I often return to the work of poets who I think are criminally overlooked such as Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Ian Hamilton. Michael Donaghy's work appeals to me a great deal as well as Mick Imlah's 'The Lost Leader' which will stand as a monument and swansong to the man. My favourite poets are Michael Longley, Ian Abbot (a Scottish poet of incredible promise who died months after his first book 'Avoiding the Gods' was published) and Sydney Goodsir Smith whose love poem sequence 'Under the Eildon Tree' I centred my MLitt dissertation on. New, upcoming poets who I've been following lately are Andrew Jamieson, Emily Berry, Jack Underwood and Tara Bergin, but there are many others and the quality and quantity of work being produced by the 'new generation' bodes extremely well for the future. Despite other circumstances, I think it's a very propitious time to be a poet starting out.
The next question I have is to ask you is where you think, after the Happenstance pamphlet your work will go next? Not in terms of 'a collection by x publisher' but more along the lines of how the work itself will develop. Will you change the themes you are exploring, will you keep immersing yourself in what you are doing currently? Will you try and write a lot and publish frequently or, like Ian Hamilton or Phillip Larkin, keep the volume of your output quite small and selective?
Once I got all of my teenage posteuring and poetastering out of the way and started to write clearly and properly about things that matter to me I found that my family was always the predominant theme and subject matter. I think there is still a keen interest in family history and (dysfunctional) values in my work but also I feel my scope has expanded a great deal so that I can try to tackle anything that arrests or interests me. Someone said that Edwin Morgan could write a cracking poem about anything and I envy that and I also like what someone else said about MacDiarmid, that he was a 'polymathic magpie', stashing his poems with all of the technically named micaceous rocks, rhetorical devices, arcane terms that caught his eye.
While I am not even on the same planet as these two giants I do feel that my poetry is about whatever catches my eye and I think that my work is becoming more relaxed and less verbose and keen to impress than it used to be. Often a phrase overhead in a pub stops me in my tracks or something gleaned from the newspaper or real-life. I think you are really in business poetically when two separate, even non sequitous things/ events/ experiences/phrases collide and it is that frisson that you get from connecting two elements of your life and trying to rationalise why you think they should be united that illuminates things and powers the poem. I'm very happy carrying on the way I'm going, slowly and surely, building up a little cache of poems for pamphlet publication and what really keeps me going is the niggling but recurring thought that I am not at all satisfied by what I am writing.
I always feel my poems are lacking or lacklustre and that isn't just phoney self-deprecation, I feel I'm still just (to purloin a tidy phrase from The Jayhawks) 'stumbling through the dark'. But it is with every poem I write that I feel has a life beyond the bin that I inch a little closer to 'the kind of poetry I want' for myself. I have no world conquering plans beyond my first pamphlet other than a drive to improve and sharpen the way I write. To come back to Ian Hamilton to finish off, I am learning with the aid of Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press to be ruthless and I am turning into a poet of the 'leavers-out' rather than the 'keepers-in' school. Ian Hamilton wrote about one poem for every year of his life, his ouevre is slender, but look at the poems he chose to keep!
Thank you Richie McCaffery!