Interview: Alan Gillis

Why poetry? Why did you become a poet? Was it reading particular poets or poems?
It didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t even read decent novels until I was about sixteen. At first I thought I would write songs and be in a band, which never happened. I can’t sing or play an instrument, and nobody I knew wanted to be in a band. Yet that’s what I wanted to do as a teenager, and I did write a few songs. Poems came later. But I think the desire to write poems was and is an extension of the initial urge to write songs.

So the songs are in the poems, are they? That initial desire to sing?
I think so. A poem’s not like a song lyric because the poem has to have its musicality built into it. The two things are distinct. But even so…

Was it the case that poems could express what you wanted better than any other form?

The other side of the coin was that I eventually came across some novels that you might say had proper literary style. I remember I hadn’t read very much, but then the school got a library, and I picked up Joyce’s Dubliners. I remember reading it late into the night. By the time I got to ‘Ivy Day’ and ‘Grace’ I didn’t really know what was going on. It was quite disorientating. But I made it to ‘The Dead’, and something happened. I’d never had an experience like it before. The last pages, as the snow comes in… I know it sounds corny, but it was an epiphany. And I thought: ‘I’m having this’. In the first instance, I simply wanted to read more things like that. So I began to read with intent, and seemed to gravitate towards the more stylised kind of novel. Reading poems came sometime after that. Now I think of the end of ‘The Dead’ as a kind of poem coming out of the story. Another thing was that I had a friend who became equally literature-hungry, and he started to write poems with serious intent. That was important because it established a ‘can do’ attitude. Otherwise I might have assumed that writing poetry wasn’t a viable thing for people from round our way. Some time later, I came across, at the same time, two books: Paul Muldoon’s Quoof and Ciaran Carson’s The Irish for No. I guess this was when poetry really got its hooks into me. It clicked that here was amazing stuff about home in which everything was strange and new, and I started reading as much verse as I could on the back of that. I think there had to be such a click, because, like I say, you presume that poetry is for somebody else. But with these books I felt: ‘this is for me’. I think you possibly need some such experience to initiate you into poetry. It opens the door.

You’re often thought of as a ‘Belfast poet’. But you were an undergraduate student in Dublin. How important was Dublin?
You partially get to where you are by accident, and going to Dublin wasn’t exactly thought out. But on going there, I seemed to somehow decide that I would write poems. I didn’t actually write anything for about another two years. But I’d made the decision. Properly beginning was triggered by an occasion. Some people I knew had organised a poetry reading, and I thought ‘well, it’s now or never’. So I bluffed that I was a poet, and then had a week before I was standing in front of a crowd. The reading was for a local charity, and they had Brendan Kennelly as the star turn. I was no doubt extremely rough, yet Brendan was supportive and complimentary. And that gave a spurt of confidence. And I ended up just doing that for a while. I’d have no poems, but there’d be a reading in some pub, and each time I’d use that pressure to come up with new poems. This was probably a terrible way to start – writing for aural performance, specifically for the pub – but that’s how I began. At the same time, being in Dublin, I was very much surprised that, as a Northern prod, I was a thing of interest. So in Dublin I was getting away from home, but I also felt under scrutiny. In an odd way, life in Dublin was a concentration of being Northern Irish, while also an escape. I don’t know if it would be like that now. But the first poems were certainly a reaction against the idea of people addressing you in terms of where you’re from, instead of who you are. I guess being in Dublin helped me to locate myself within a sense of Irish culture and history. Even though I didn’t always like it, the attentiveness to where I was from probably did me good.

That critical distance which comes from going somewhere else, which helps you reflect on where you’re from: is that enabling in terms of poetry? You mentioned Muldoon and 7 Carson. Both those poets write in a way that’s self-reflexive about their medium. I guess any poet is careful with words, but Quoof and The Irish for No were written in a situation that was charged in a particular way. In terms of home, belonging, identity: there’s pressure on these things. Is that why you responded to them? Were they enabling in terms of rethinking what home actually is, and what poetry can do?
I think so. In the first instance, the self-reflexivity: I liked that these poets weren’t on the high-horse. Clearly there was extraordinary skill and inventiveness creating a profound and searing effect, but there was no grandstanding. There’s an awareness that everything is preposterous, in a way, and yet is of immense consequence. Add Heaney, Longley and Mahon to the list: all these poets, at their best, don’t take anything for granted at a stylistic level. And I think their approach to subject matter – things like home and responsibility – is treated in the same way, in that little is taken for granted, even while there’s a profound emotional charge. You know: ‘I’ll write verse now about my identity’. Such a thought is curdling. Yet it’s still what you do, probably. These poets show the way in that they earn your ear and create an examination of something like home, rather than assuming that they, or anyone, know what home is, or who the self is.

All poets need to steer clear of well-worn certitudes and banal wisdoms. Regarding the Troubles, do you think there was something enabling, in terms of being a poet, given the experience of living under a governing staleness, or stasis?
I think we all live under a continual kind of governing staleness and conservatism. To go back to the idea of music. What gets called popular music is, at heart, generated from the sticks, and is always an assertion that there must be something more to life than this. So you assume that poems must partake of that as well. At least, the principle that there must be something more seems like a reasonable starting place. But more specifically, I guess home was probably a bit weird when you look back on it. There’s a duality. What you’re brought up with is just normality, yet odd things are going on. The place where I was brought up was overwhelmingly protestant and loyalist. So I lived in an estate populated by lots of policemen. And it’s obvious now that these people were having strangely pressured lives. All kinds of pathological activity, but through the eyes of a child… Of course, that happens everywhere else. So, I think one thing ‘of benefit’ about coming from the North is that you tend to assume there is no such thing as normal. It doesn’t exist. The enemy is complacency. Yet such a stance can make you quite tiresome, and poetry needs to give pleasure as well. So you’re looking for strategies, vantage points from which to approach the problem of normality.

The poets you’ve mentioned have all taken conventional forms, but have really worked them to do something individual and new. And this goes for your work also. Is it something you do consciously?
Well, it’s back to the preposterousness of writing poetry in the first place. You have to get over this by earning your right to be on the page. You have to earn the right to be ‘doing’ a sonnet. In the first instance, you have to practice and simply write something fourteen lines long. But ultimately you must at least aspire towards making it yours. Of course you’re aware of what others close to home have achieved, and are still achieving. But I think this is an enabling pressure. The trick is to figure out that it has always been the same for everybody else. Anyone who’s written a sonnet in the last three hundred years has felt both the pressure and enticement of the marvellous things already done with it. And that’s part of the point. I mean, I know I’ll possibly be under the considerable shadows of other poets from Northern Ireland for the duration of my writing life. But the achievement of these poets: rather than being disabling, it’s galvanising, it raises the bar. So, if I’m going to write a sonnet, I better do it well. And once you’re writing, you forget about yourself: it’s all about the words on the page. They need to take on their own character if they’re going to have their existence and survive. I think that’s what form is about.

About those ‘shadows’, after you discovered Muldoon and Carson, did you then find yourself moving on and finding others?
Very much so. After Dublin I moved to Belfast, where I was a postgrad for five years, and this was an incredibly rich time, as I could just read, and read, and almost every good poet was new to me.

Did you study Creative Writing at this time?

No. But this is when I really went to school. What I was doing in Dublin: putting myself about as a poet and winging it – I stopped doing that. There were eight years, or so, between leaving Dublin for Belfast and my first book. I felt it best to put my head down and serve a proper apprenticeship. There were writing groups, but I had become mortified by how poor my poems were, and I had such a painful need to be better. Being rubbish and figuring how to put it right – this was just a very urgent, personal thing with me, so I mostly kept things between the books I read and myself. I was stubborn and prickly, and I know now that workshops would have helped. But anyway, another side to it is that I was being taught by critics as sharp as Edna Longley and Michael Allen. And there were poets in town as good as Michael Longley, 9 Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian. People like Heaney and Muldoon were palpable presences. So the prevailing standards were such that there didn’t seem any point in ‘coming out’ until I was halfway decent. But I was on the scene as a poetry enthusiast and wannabe critic. And those just-mentioned people, and others, were extremely generous and nurturing about this, so I was in a lucky and privileged position, and this was a great place and time in which to incubate myself.

You were a postgrad in Belfast, embarking on an academic career there. Being a critic and being a poet: are these complementary?
I hope so and assume so. Trying to write criticism and trying to write poems – they both entail learning as much as you can about the art. In this sense they’re essentially a fit. But I’m also sure they need to be kept apart. Poetry needs critical intelligence, but also freedom from it. I guess creative intelligence is what you’re after. When writing a poem, you leave the criticism behind, yet it’s presumably informing what you do. I’m sure this traffic runs the other way also. But analysing what goes on too closely would be troublesome. The practical experience is that one thing sometimes gets in the way of the other; at other times, one relieves the other. And I’m happy to leave it at that. So in my head they’re two separate jobs. I think you have to find your voice as a critic as much as you do so as a poet. It’s a difficult art to do well. But when of a certain standard, criticism is vital to the health and wellbeing of the art, not separate from it. Very often, the quality of poetry is related to the quality of criticism within the environment at large, and vice versa. This can be an antagonistic relationship, but it’s symbiotic. Some part of the poet would like to kill the critic. Yet this would be slow suicide. Properly insightful critics – and there’s fewer of these than there are good poets – must be treasured.

That sense of a critical intelligence seeking concord with imaginative freedom seems reminiscent of Louis MacNeice. Tell me about MacNeice: he’s clearly important to you.
He was a big revelation. I really responded to his freshness, to his city poems, to his wit and verve. There was something about the energy of his lines and sense of detail. And this still stands. Although it doesn’t sound like a compliment, he was one of the first real middle-class poets, in that he claimed a broad reality of day-to-day living for the lyric which was quite new: others had approached this ‘as a subject’, presuming themselves apart from it. But MacNeice had the ability to be simultaneously within and without the living stream of middling citizenship in which he abided. Then there’s the later poems… And yes, I guess I’ve learned a great deal through his criticism also. 10 I don’t think I ever consciously sounded him out because of his background, the disaffiliated protestant background or whatever. That only becomes interesting to the extent that he had such chops in the first place.

It’s interesting that you pick out a sense of MacNeice as a poet of the everyday. Your own poetry is notable for not rejecting the crassness of the world. Do you sometimes try to challenge preconceptions of what ‘proper’ subject matter might be?
Well, you know, the world that you live in is filled with stuff. MacNeice and others such as Larkin are enabling in that they include some of this stuff; but they also have speculative ideas and intelligence in there as well. Nowadays, the importance of putting day-to-day subject matter into a poem might seem self-evident, but it remains an enormous challenge, because it’s essential that you do something with it.

Some say only ‘difficult’ poetry is worthwhile, and Larkinesque verse is a kind of dumbing down. But is it more about granting a dignity to the everyday, which it sometimes deserves, and which poetry sometimes neglects?
Perhaps the everyday gives a dignity to poetry. But anything can be done well, or done badly. I do think that poets have to continually figure anew what to do with, say, the reality of class inequality, with contemporary banality, with the clichéd texture of our life – the way our wildest dreams now come optioned with brand names – within which we experience our real hurt and desire, fortitude and corruption. And there’d be something remiss if poetry simply turned its back on such things. Poets can’t roll over and surrender this ground to novelists, even though it makes it hard to keep the lyric singing. I guess one approach to the ‘everyday’ that I have, is to try to pack quite a lot into my lines. That’s not really a conscious decision, more something that just happens when I write. A lot of lyric poetry is about paring down and cutting back. And this is as it should be. But sometimes poetry must confront this immense clutter of things, both inside and outside, in and through which we live. Sometimes it can be enabling and sometimes deadening: both are to be explored. So the verse perhaps takes on a supersaturated feel while trying to keep its movement.

Your own poems are often political, but not in abstract terms, or in terms of doctrine or dogma. Do you think poetry, just by being poetry, achieves a kind of politics?

As a wise man might once have said, poetry must remain useless, or else it really will be useless. The key thing is that a poem won’t be a poem if it merely states a preconceived idea or opinion. That would have no life. It has to be the figuring out of itself. But this can be used to excuse an insular 11 apoliticism, or even to claim that such apoliticism is ‘proper’ to poetry. And I think this is wrong. I’d say there are two truths about this. Poetry has to be free: ‘useless’ or non-utilitarian. If you lose that, you’re in trouble. At the same time, poetry has to address the world you live in, and explore the task of being a citizen. I think if you lose that, you’re equally screwed. These two essentials have to compete in each poem. Too much of one or the other will quickly stale. So you don’t disavow critical thought and opinion, it’s just that such things must enter the broader dreamtime of the poem, where the left side and right side of the brain meet unpredictably through the pressure put on language by style and form. In terms of my own poems, I guess I’ve hit upon the conceit of using personae who are very confused. You know, about the main things: Who am I? What should I do? How can I make sense of the way things are? Obviously I’m very confused myself, so we’re talking ‘personae’ in inverted commas. But I guess I assume this is how most people are, so it seems a good starting place. And hopefully it helps create a direct political engagement without didacticism, because it enables varying degrees of dramatic tension and irony.

Your poems often dwell in twilight zones, sometimes explicitly. In reality, in Belfast, you can go into a Twilight Zone arcade and gamble. Is that what you think poetry is? A Twilight Zone, or something of a gamble?
I associate those Twilight Zone arcades with a distinct time and place: they make me very nostalgic about having no responsibility. But yes, the Twilight Zone, generally, is surely the house of poetry. Yeats was on the money.

Obviously in the time you’ve been writing poetry, Northern Ireland has undergone a lot of change. Your poems seem to treat this flux as a twilight area, full of anxiety.
Well, change is odd, even change for the better. At certain points in your young life you assume it won’t happen. And then quite suddenly you get this optimism, and you’re not sure what to do with it. By the time I was ‘really’ writing poetry I lived in an economically deprived area in Belfast, in the midst of the peace process. It’s just where I could afford to live. And what became apparent was a huge schism between what you got from the media, and the daily reality of the street. I didn’t want to write morbidly – I think that poetry should be looking for the good – but this schism was problematic. The representation of the culture of the peace process came in tandem with a sense of an economic boom: houses prices going through the roof, and all that. As you know, the Troubles were always deeply entwined with socioeconomic inequalities, and, unfortunately, where it counted, it was clear the Troubles were still going on. But still, I do think most of the poems also look for the positive, and try to break through their self-awareness towards some intimation of the good.

Indeed, your poems often seem to open up an imaginative space that counteracts against prevailing logic: you get a sense that something good could happen, that there are alternatives and possibilities.
Idealism can itself become a problem, and must be policed by scepticism. Energy comes from a plus and a minus. But without idealism there’ll be no art. At the end of the day, it’s simple. We’ve something inbuilt that makes us want to be whole. But so too do the words, or at least words animated by rhythm. Your idealism doesn’t necessarily come through theme or subject matter, but through a sonic ambience and connotative openness, feeling through the inarticulate, so that language itself is animated with anxiety and yearning for some transfiguration, imprinting deep through the inner ear an intuition of some potential plenitude, or its opposite. Not all poems need partake of that, but it’s something that wets my whistle, I guess. We can’t always choose our own taste. Like I say, the nature of idealism and scepticism in poetry ensures that each is equally necessary. Perhaps this creates the sense of alternatives and possibilities? I suppose I like the idea of having varying registers in one poem… at least, variations of tone and idiom. Not really at odds with each other, not collage, but part of a multitudinous oneness. I guess I hope this carries a sense that there are always at least thirteen ways of looking at one thing, without making this the theme of the poem as such. We all have these simultaneous and conflicting… levels within us. Our inner selves are made up of words and phrases, which mostly lie dormant, like half-dead tissue. So you weave these together and try to animate them with the spark of rhythm. Perhaps you might think of poems – some of them – as Frankenstein creatures, stitched together and estranged, looking for their soul.

You’ve been based in Edinburgh for five years now. Do you still see yourself as a Belfast poet?
This was never straightforward. I was brought up in a town down the road called Newtownards. As Belfast sprawls eastwards, there’s about two miles of countryside, and then there’s Ards. So, for me, there’s always the small town, and a green space, as well as the city. Belfast was a looming and central presence, but also ‘over there’, which possibly made its pull all the stronger. After Dublin, I lived near Belfast city centre for ten years. To the extent that I believe you have to write about the ‘everyday’, Belfast was just what was outside the door. Then again, I guess there was something more…

Is your interest in writing ‘the city’, as much as Belfast in particular?
It’s difficult to separate. Perhaps simply being from the smaller town made me less blasé about the city. My younger experience of Belfast as the place ‘over there’ meant that the city, given the context, was a more dangerous place. But it was also where the ‘culture’ was: where bands played; where you found the good record shops; where people who shared similar cultural affinities were to be found, free from sectarian shite, in certain bars; and, within that grouping, where the girls where. So it was a mix of the good and the terrible. And that kind of charged sense of the place stayed with me, later on, when I lived there properly. Maybe grappling with Belfast is, to an extent, also about confronting some form of hurt or wrong. But otherwise, I think I take my adolescent sense of ‘the city’ with me wherever I go. Any large, busy, compressed urban space has an effect on me: not all good. Aye, it’s the Twilight Zone and I’m a big country bumpkin at heart! I think I’ve an urge to make sense of ‘the city’ as a place where you can locate yourself with some stability – to recast it as a small town, in a sense, with some degree of communal belonging – while I’m simultaneously attracted because it undercuts such urges.

Is Edinburgh changing your writing?
My main instinct remains to try to write what’s outside the door, so there should be change. But who knows how it’ll pan out. I’ve still never written about Dublin, and have never really tried. It’s hard to explain. These things have to come from the bottom up, from compulsion, so you never know what’ll happen next. I’ve been in Edinburgh for five years now, but, in poetry terms, this means it’s still early days. There’s obviously a huge and rich heritage of writing about Edinburgh. You can’t ignore this, but it also isn’t necessarily good to be in thrall to it. In new poems, like ‘On a Cold Evening in Edinburgh’, I think I consciously set out not to pay homage to the town’s established tropes, while still trying to truly honour a sense of the place. Other new works, such as ‘Rush Hour’, ‘At Dawn’ and ‘At Dusk’ address the generalised city even more so. I think this has validity in terms of our globalisation. But in these new poems, I also think Edinburgh’s detail and character are there, pressing in, mating with an ingrained experience of Belfast that’s already inside me. And the pastoral? I see that as equally important to what I do. I think I’m drawn specifically to where the urban and pastoral are in proximity: the woods at the edge of town, the public park. But, in fact, I don’t really like the distinction between urban and pastoral. Whatever’s going on in one surely goes on in the other? I’ve been reading a bit of ecocriticism in relation to poetry. Surely it’s a serious mistake to think only of the rural in terms of ecology? The ecosystem of the city can’t be distinguished so absolutely from that of the countryside: it’s a continuum, linked by human error. Indeed, in the city we might best learn to lay down our innate imperialism, re-orientate ourselves. So I don’t see how a poet who’ll only speak of plants and animals is somehow more profound than others. But aye, I like the names of plants, and I like opening out to – what should we call it? – the non-human organic, or running away from it. If the interior/exterior dynamic is at the core of the lyric, then I guess this is refracted differently in pastoral spaces and urban spaces. And I need both in my poems. But the idea that they also form a continuum seems important.

You’ve recently published your third collection, Here Comes the Night. How do you feel about that?
I guess you feel like you’ve just spent a long and intense time in some dark smithy, some workhouse… It’s like you’ve built a ship. You’re excited and proud, but also anxious that it will float. You set it out on the waters and it’s out there, no longer yours. You can only hope a few get on board and take a trip, and enjoy it.

Do you feel an affinity with Scottish culture and literature?
That natural ‘click’ we talked about earlier – I had that from the start with many Scottish writers: Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Douglas Dunn. The latter’s Faber anthology of Scottish poetry was a big book for me in formative years. Irvine Welsh was unignorable at that same time. A bit later, Alan Warner, Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie and others have made deep impressions. Since getting here I’m reading outwards and backwards. MacDiarmid amazes me, and does my head in, in equal measure. But yeah, I think the affinities are deep and abiding, while I’m also an outsider, getting a measure of things.

Is that sense of affinity bound up with broader crosscurrents between Ireland and Scotland?
I’m sure that’s the case, from the landscape to the lingo, the matter of England, the fissured religious shaping, the folk culture, the simultaneous self-contradiction and nationalist self-identification. You have to be wary of overriding stereotypes, but there’s lots of them. Negotiating these is perhaps a major crosscurrent. Like you, I studied Irish literature when the so-called revisionist debates were still pitched with serious intensity. It can 15 be suffocating. You get fatigued and you want to move on. I don’t think recent Scottish letters have experienced that level of self-division and tension of debate. But the basic sense of nationalism as a recurring concern is of course a natural crosscurrent. Like I say, I’m at home and also an outsider, and simply pleased to be here.

And finally, you’re now editor of Edinburgh Review. What’s your state of mind about that? Have you specific plans or ambitions?

It’s something I feel an immense privilege and honour about. There’s such a great heritage to it. The specific plan is just to produce a consistently vibrant read. I think it should be quite simple: the job in hand is to aim for as high a level of literary quality as possible, being open to the many shapes and forms this can come in. I like the idea that people might look forward to each issue, as a place where they’ll be guaranteed to find good work by talented writers, new and known. If I can attract good enough writing, the rest should take care of itself. I think its Scottishness should be firmly rooted; but, as ever, that this should never be parochial. But the best writing is always pretty much rooted and non-parochial anyway. I guess I go with the sense of Britain and Ireland as an archipelago, and this will guide things. The natural flow would be Scotland… the ‘North’… Britain and Ireland… the world. But not always in that order. As part and parcel of the idea of good writing, I’m hoping the Review will be a place of debate, engaged argument, committed and judicious criticism, open mindedness, and new ideas. There’s much to criticise and much to celebrate. So I’m excited and upbeat that great gear will be found here. Literary might and critical bite at a price that’s right!… that sound ok?

Sounds good to me. Thanks for talking.
Cheers.

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