Born in Belfast in 1973, Alan Gillis is a poet who has published four critically acclaimed collections and co-edited numerous volumes of criticism. His first collection, Somebody, Somewhere, was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award and won the 2004 Rupert and Eithne Strong Award. Hawks and Doves, his second collection, was shortlisted for the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize. In 2010 he published Here Comes The Night. Last year, he published Scapegoat—his fourth collection— and was named next a Next Generation poet. He is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.
Dave Coates: Scapegoat is your fourth collection. Has your process of composing a book changed from one collection to the next? Has anything about it gotten easier?
Alan Gillis: Setting out to write a book is a bit grand. I’ve tried it in the past, but no go. The only way forward, for me, is try to write a poem. Of course, it’s impossible to refrain from grand conceptions. But these are always cooked up, or half-baked, in the long, long passages of time when I’m not writing. Once I actually get down to the business of facing the heartless blank page, all masterplans shrivel. They possibly inform the writing a bit, but as vague memories, broken promises. Instead, you write a poem, and if that has worked out, you try for another. And you keep going, if the going is good. The best books of poems are the books with the best poems in them. The overall themes, the relative ‘togetherness’ of the individual pieces—this is all secondary. So you’re nowhere unless each poem as an individual entity is as good as it can be. Then, of course, when you have a bunch, you start thinking about whether and how they might come together.
In saying that, what does tend to happen is that, especially if there’s not too large a gap between attempts at them, one poem influences another. In the first place, for me, this is frequently a matter of trying to write a (relatively) cheerier one if I’ve written something maudlin; a zippy one if I’ve written something abstract; a short one if I’ve written a long one; and so on. But once this is underway, you know you’re probably onto something if you keep returning to a theme, or form, even though you’re more or less trying to steer clear of it. For instance, you write a poem about a tree. So the next time you sit down, you say, ‘right, this can be about anything except a tree’. Then you doodle and faff about and doodle some more, and before you know it, you’re writing about a tree. At that stage, you know you’re either the most narrow-minded eejit on the planet, or else the tree is ‘calling you’, as it were, and you have no choice. Perhaps these are not mutually exclusive? But either way, there’s no point worrying about it and you go with the flow of the composition as it is panning out at that particular time.
You might say, after two poems, ‘right then, we’ll spend the next year writing seventy-five more poems about trees in terza rima, moving through the seasons’, or whatever. Or you might say, ‘Oh God, not this again’ and try to fight against what’s naturally coming through. I don’t think either option would be necessarily right, yet in some form, either inclination will probably be rearing its head. If anything has gotten easier, for me, I hope it’s that I’m learning to manage the balance, a bit more successfully, between go-with-theflow open-mindedness and whatever the other side of the equation is. I’m hopefully wasting a bit less time (although this is highly relative). I seemed to spend ten years, before the days of publication, doing exactly the wrong thing at every juncture. Huge amounts of time and effort spent on pieces that were always doomed to be poo. But the truth is that it’s impossible to know, absolutely, what is right or wrong, when you’re in the act (I mean, when you’re writing a poem). I guess that’s part of the pleasure?
Were you surprised by the kinds of poems that appeared in Scapegoat or was there always a direction you wanted to take?
Very surprised. There was quite a hiatus between the writing of Here Comes the Night and the new poems—a few years, I think, where I was just emptied. Then I had a semester of academic leave (yup, the writing life begins to revolve around such things, and whether that’s good or bad, it is unavoidable). So I had an opportunity to get into the zone and write a bunch with a clean slate. If I had any conceptual plans, they would have been: no memory poems about back in the day, no poems about Northern Ireland, no long poems, no narrative poems, no bullshitty joke poems, and no rhymes.
Needless to say, I spent a vast eternity staring at the heartless blank page, getting into a twist: one of those desperate spells where it seems finished, impossible that there could ever be anything again except a big blank nada. What eventually forced itself through was ‘Before What Came After’—a memory poem about back in the day in Northern Ireland, in rhyme. The first two lines popped out from nowhere, at the 11th hour, and the rest of the poem came without effort, finished before morning. There must have been a very solid block of ice that poem needed to break through, so I was thankful. After that, more poems began to happen. That six or seven more of them were also poems about back in the day in Northern Ireland quite frankly bewildered me, given that I did try to avoid this. And I oohed and aahed about what to do. But I eventually assumed they simply needed to come out. Then again, other poems, such as ‘Zeitgeist’ and the big storm thing at the end of the book—and also the tree poem, come to think of it—were also unplanned and unforeseen. So that’s the way of it.
As with previous collections, Scapegoat seems distinctly formally patterned, particularly in its recurring rhyming couplets. How does this kind of patterning inform your writing practice?
Well, as I’ve suggested, the rhyming couplets appeared in the first poem I wrote (after a long break). After that, I honestly did make a ‘no more of that now’ note-to-self. But again and again, I would be trying to mould phrases or lines, when they came, into shape, and it just kind of happened that the allimportant ‘click’ didn’t come until there was a rhymed structure. I’m guessing four or five more in rhyming couplets, and probably a lot more still in ABABtype patterns. So there’s a kind of intuition that takes over, a kind of feelingprocess over which the brainy part of the brain holds little sway. At the end of the day, there is no writing practice if this intuition doesn’t kick in. If it isn’t happening, you probably shouldn’t be writing.
In saying that, sometimes the intuition and the plan do coalesce, and you probably need to keep trying for that also. I mean, it’s par-for-the-course that you purposively try a sonnet, a sestina, and so on. And I’ve found it important to keep working at them until something (hopefully) has come good of it. After that, it becomes fascinating—from the writing point of view—to see if you can do something different again, within the same shape, or with slight variations. And so on. At the very least, that sort of thing is a basic way of acquiring and honing skill and technique, without which poetry won’t happen. Every year I hear students say they don’t like rhyme. It often transpires that they’ve tried it, once or twice, and found what they wrote wasn’t good. And what seems to have gone missing is the expectation that it might be difficult to do, that it might take some time and effort. Of course your attempt was no good, because it was the first time you tried, and it’s tremendously difficult to rhyme well.
I’ve already said that I was interested, a while back, in trying to write poems that didn’t end-rhyme. This was because I reckoned it would be a challenge for me, and might bring out something new. So the sense was, that it might just be right for me at that specific juncture (in other words, not for all time). It didn’t work out, last time around, and that’s something I’ll keep chewing over. But the interest was specifically that I’d need to find other modes of patterning, other ways of getting the poem to come together. It’s not that all poems need to be full-rhymed, or anything like that. But something fundamental goes missing when you throw out the idea of it altogether, even as a possibility. So I guess some form of patterning is absolutely central to my writing practice. I’m a fully-paid up believer in Yeats’s sense that without this, the self gets in the way. And the self isn’t too hot, when left to its own devices. It can go away and blog. Art is something else.
The collection also marks [if I’m counting right] ten years living in Edinburgh. How has the change of scenery affected your imagination? How does it feel to be an Irish poet working outside of Ireland?
I like being in Ireland, always enjoy it. If I head over, I guess I think ‘I’m going home’. But then when I return to Edinburgh, I also think ‘I’m going home’. So it’s become much-of-a-muchness. There was always a part of me that felt alien and uncomfortable in Belfast, and when I lived in Dublin, and before that in Newtownards. I assume it’s normal. We’re all exiles in a fallen world, in the deepest sense. But as soon as you say that, the image of what’s happening in the world looms large, in terms of immigration crises, mass displacements, and so on, and because of this I don’t think it right to carp on about being an Irish poet working outside of Ireland, or anything of that sort. Edinburgh’s a grand place and I feel lucky to be here. And the differences between Ireland and Scotland, while fascinating, are small. I guess, in my head, I’m a citizen of an enlarged, contemporary Dál Riata. Politically, of course, Scotland is fascinating right now. And part of the mind tries to figure what events in Scotland ‘might mean’ for Ireland. But the idea of writing an ‘Irish’ poem, then a ‘Scottish’ one, can’t come into it. That would be terrible. I just write poems, and whether one is set in Belfast, or in Edinburgh, or out in a Big Nowhere, it’s a presupposition that the poem is for humans. For me, this has been fundamental from the start—quixotic though it might be, territorial though some poems might initially appear. You always just want to connect, with any reader. So the big problem for the imagination, as it were, is ‘how the feck do you accomplish that?’
Your work has always depicted the lives of people living in poverty, and Scapegoat in particular, in poems like ‘The Estate‘ and ‘Somewhere Near the Dockyards‘, focuses on systemic economic oppression to a degree not commonly found in contemporary poetry. Is there a lack of mainstream poetry that harnesses both its imagination and its social consciousness?
I believe that a poem about a blade of grass can be much more politically powerful than a poem about big issues. It’s the way lyric poetry works. And no one wants to hear a poet on a soapbox. The results are awful most of the time, not even what I’d think of as real poetry. The whole ‘caught between freedom and necessity’ thing is ageless. You need to feel—what?—unconstrained?— free to do whatever the hell you’d like. But then again, if you have no desire to make a poem engage with our political and historical travesties, one way or another, then you’re a tosser. So what do you do?
I’d say most of what you might call post-Larkin poetry, which dominates contemporary verse round these parts, is very much grounded in social consciousness. There’s nothing wrong with it, and indeed it can be brilliant, like Larkin. But perhaps it has become slightly comfortable. You can stuff your poems full of references to social privation, inequality, abuses of power, and so on. Sooner or later, this will become like wallpaper. Again, it’s just the way of it. So what you need is to constantly scratch at fundamentals of form, approach, perspective, tone, as much as you do at subject matter. Anything done well will encompass an element that is ever-so-slightly new, and this in itself will make a poem politically worthwhile, regardless of what it depicts.
In saying that, I do sometimes think about differences between poetry and fiction and films. Novels and films might take on differing characters, confrontational perspectives, vernaculars, representing the pathologies and conflictual basis of our problematic society—and this is normal, to be expected. But if a poem attempts to take on even vanilla elements of these, it often sticks out like a sore thumb, like a novelty item. Does this mean it doesn’t work? Does this mean expectations of poetry are overly conventionalised and could do with being shaken up? I don’t know. I guess I’ve tried out confrontational perspectives in my poems, here and there, as a way to scratch at the bourgeois comfort-zone of verse. And I’ve tried to put stuff-of-the-world into the odd poem, which is difficult, because a microwave oven has much more deadening connotative properties than, say, an ocean wave. So such things risk aesthetic unevenness, but you have to try, and I think too much smoothness can be deadening anyway.
Are there poets you’ve found particularly influential in that regard?
The poets I’ve found influential, in this respect, are the ones you might expect: Tom Leonard, Tony Harrison, much Caribbean poetry, in terms of voice; Auden, MacNeice, my elders and betters from Northern Ireland, in terms of lyric and society more generally. I think the former ‘vernacular’ poets have been unfairly marginalised through being put in a particular box, which is vexing. But I’m as interested in the manner in which W.S. Graham is political, as much as Tom Leonard. You look at how some of these issues are discussed, in our time, and you can’t help wondering what has gone missing, not from the poems but from the level of reception.
From the writing point of view, you can’t really differentiate an interest in class inequality from other faultlines such as gender inequality, global poverty, global warming, the impact of technology, and so on. Whatever you focus on, the problem will be the same—poetry wants you to explore a thing, not pronounce on it. I believe poetry should aspire to beauty, but it needs to take on the shit of the world, and of the self, if that beauty is to be more than cosmetic. And it needs to defy easy categorisation, to have levels, if it is to work authentically. But I also believe that all good poets think these things, and the ‘lack’ you’re getting at in your previous question is perhaps more to do with the current critical reception of verse, the state of reviewing, and whatnot.
Dramatic personae also seem to be a recurring feature, often in the voice of women, which is again unusual in a male poet. What do you think these poems can do differently than those with a more autobiographical poetic self, bearing in mind, I guess, how slippery an idea that is anyway?
Aye, it’s an interesting area, because there’s such a fluid line between writing the self and writing a persona. The biographical self is an overrated entity. And I used to wholeheartedly wish to break-up any kind of continuity of self in successive poems—to make my verse multi-voiced and multi-perspectival. Nowadays, I’m more and more seeing the downside of such an aesthetic. It can become very empty, quite quickly. I’ve accepted that authenticity of voice is a central aspect of what the best lyric poetry can offer its readers. So maybe I’m just becoming yet another old poetry fogey. But then again, perhaps there doesn’t need to be a ‘one or the other’ trade-off between these things? Certainly, any poet’s voice is always a persona, in the first instance. In verse, I think the self is always a space in which a more generalized being-in-theworld is played out. The ‘I’, for me, is a space to be inhabited by the reader. The poet isn’t necessarily some deep sage, but is someone who can artfully facilitate the reader’s passage into that imaginative space and experience. So in this way, one might perhaps be able to tone down the puppetry of too many ‘voices’, while avoiding the dead-end of the reified poetic self.
Yet I still often need to coax myself to use the ‘I’, and I remain fascinated by what happens when you switch from an ‘I’ to a ‘you’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’. A lot of those Northern Irish poems in Scapegoat use the first person, yet none of them are autobiographical. None of them are literally true. But they’re not exactly empty of myself either. They feel quite intimate. I’d say they are fictive extensions of true emotional experience, the results of memories mutating into stories. So it felt right and fitting not to use a distancing ‘you’ or ‘he’ in most of them. Meanwhile, the idea of writing-as-a-woman stems from my interest in trying to broaden the base, as it were, and is thus very much the same kind of thing. In one way, this is the same as me writing as a hooligan or as a Daily Mail reader. But I’d hope there’s a difference of authenticity, when using some overt personas, at least in the poems where that’s meant to be the case. It comes down to intimacy, to the authenticity of the sensibility being cast. Certain types of poem satirically play to caricature, others seek to avoid this. Perhaps it becomes messy when you try both, but hey. And so, while it’s presumptuous and full of risks, to try to write as a woman, and not to make it puppetry, is worth the attempt. You want, not me, but humanity on the page. Of course, there are serious limitations to what you’re capable of. Maybe this is why authenticity of voice remains a fundamental touchstone—to stop you getting away from yourself and winding up everywhere and nowhere with all the vapidity of a YouTube clip. But still, poetry should ultimately be about an enlargement and deepening. And that fluid line between self and persona is where the world gets in. And everyone is welcome.