Why is poetry important?
Poetry is important because it manages to say in words things that you can't otherwise say, often, it manages to express people's love, people's grief, people's loss and intense moments of their lives and poetry somehow captures these moments that people go through, that we all go through, in various different ways in our lives and expresses for us what usually cannot be articulated. Poetry gives a voice to the voiceless...really.
When did you discover poetry?
Well I used to go to Burns suppers when I was a kid, I got taken to these Burns suppers to celebrate the Scottish poet Robert Burns on the 25th January every year and I found those hugely exciting occasions, because somebody would pipe in a haggis then somebody would address the haggis. "Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,/Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!/Aboon them a' yet tak your place" and a knife would get stabbed in the haggis and the haggis would burst open and it was all really gloriously dramatic. I loved the idea that poetry could contain drama like that and it could also be for occasions. Also I read poems a lot at home as well as at school because my parents read poems and they'd take me out to things like poetry and pints nights at the Highland Institute in Sucheihall Street in Glasgow which was more pints than poetry but still quite a lot of fun and I came across poets like Tom Leonard or Liz Lockhead and found it really really exciting that there were poems being written in Glaswegian, the way that I heard people talk and that poetry didn't need to be this sort of rarefied language separate from ourselves; poetry could be part of ourselves, of our very own voices.
What made you start writing poetry?
I started writing poems when I was really young, 11, 12. I started writing initially because I felt there were things wrong with the world, so I'd write poems about apartheid or poems about discrimination, poems about peace and I had really such strong beliefs, so I'd write belief poems; in a way poems are little moments of belief, that's what poems are. Most of my early poems were polemical in a way and they didn't give readers any chance to think for themselves - they were more telling people what to think. Also I wrote because I used to find that if I was called any racist names and I rushed home and wrote a revenge poem I found that quite helpful so poetry for me, initially at least, was a kind of a sanctuary, it was a place you could go to. I still think of the imagination as a place like that, it's a kind of a refuge; it's a place you can go to in from the cold where you can imagine all sorts of things and the imagination itself will help you in various ways get through different times. I think the imagination is an incredibly powerful tool in that way, that's why people use it in all sorts of circumstances, in times of war, or in times of need and I think the initial impulse to become a writer in the first place for most writers is something quite large, something quite big in their lives; perhaps they've had a big illness or parents died, perhaps they've felt outside the society they are living in, but there's usually some sort of need that starts you off writing in the first place.
How does a poem begin for you?
A poem really begins for me with a voice really a voice of the poem. If I get the voice right, the tone right, then I can usually continue with the poem even if the voice is a lyrical voice and even if it's an abstract voice it's something that I visualise in quite a concrete physical way - that's probably how it starts off. I wrote this poem in the voice of a woman who - called 'The Knitter' recently - in the voice of a woman who was from Shetland so I wanted to capture some of that way of talking that Shetland people have which is quite different and I love the way that people talk, I think I'm in love with the way that people talk in Shetland, but I also wanted to give the idea that somebody, that this woman knits, somebody who knitted throughout her entire life, through tragedies and through wonderful things happening, through her husband drowning at sea and I wanted to write a poem like that and I couldn't quite get how to do it until I got the first line of it which was "I knit to keep death away" and once I got this "I knit to keep death away" that was it - it was like a ball of wool, the poem y'know, it was yarn. I think that's probably similar for most creative people in one way and another; you can have the physical things but you don't necessarily know what to do with them until you get that spark of ignition.
What do you do to make your writing go well?
Probably the thing that helps the writer most is having some space in your life, not being too busy in a funny way. And giving yourself...because I think you need those fallow times just as much as you need the crops and you sometimes can feel very despondent and disheartened if you're not actually writing but in order to write you need to really create enough space around yourself to give your head enough time to get to the writing and that doesn't happen just like that and because we're all so busy and we're rushing around - that's the thing that I need to have more of really. That's one thing and then landscape is another: I really like being out in the country in certain kinds of landscape - I was talking about, I love sort of empty barren Moorish landscape because they also seem to give you visually a certain amount of space. And then I suppose it helps to have a physical sort of space like a room or a study; I've had a study for a few years now. I really like having a separate room; I used to have like my bedroom and I'd get out of bed and there was my desk and that was no good, so I think it's really good to have a separate space that you can actually write in and have your own desk and for that not to get too cluttered with everything else, with the rest of life It helps to have a pattern if you can have a pattern where you write at certain times of the day every day and do it as often as you possibly can as long as you're not rushing away to do a reading or something, it helps to have a regular pattern. Even if you're sitting down and you're not producing much in that particular period of time, there's the expectation that you might, so it's quite good to see it as a date that you're keeping with yourself, to turn up for yourself. You wouldn't make an arrangement to meet a pal and just not turn up, so I think if you see it in that way it may make you get down to it because we always, I mean most writers I know, we have a million different excuses and things, we'll do just about anything rather than write - hoovering, washing dishes, but I've come to see that kind of thing as perhaps preparation that creates the space in your head. And the other thing that you may need as a writer is not to give yourself too hard a time about a thing, to accept that you write what you write, when you write it. There's always going to be a bench mark that you have and you're never going to reach that, that's all part of being a writer, you're always going to want to do more and just got to accept that comes with the territory.
What is the relationship between your speaking voice and the voice that appears on the page?
I think my own particular speaking voice doesn't necessarily influence the way I write completely because I'm often trying to capture other people's voices. I like to write in a range of different voices and different accents, not just Scottish accents but Cockney accents or Caribbean accents - I suppose I like to try and take a voice, some sort of voice, and up and run with it, but having said that I think that probably everything that I write would be recognisably, or hopefully recognisably, mine so therefore it must have some sort of voice. So there's the voice of your work and your speaking voice and they're different things. It's quite difficult to pin down what the difference is and what it is you're trying to do when you capture a voice. All I know is that I want the voices I create to be compelling, to be mysterious, to be urgent, to have something important that they want to say, to engage people and for people to feel that they can relate to these voices in some way. The best thing is when people say things like "That was me - that felt exactly like me" and that's the most exciting thing as a writer if you write something that somebody else has found useful in some way in their life, useful and helpful even.
How much is music an influence on what you write?
For me, and I think for a lot of people, music has punctuated my whole life and it's probably more of an influence on my poetry than other poems in some ways, because it has a certain rawness, particularly the kind of music I really really love to listen to which is blues and jazz and I'm always trying to find some way of expressing that musically. And also it seemed to me, because of being black and Scottish, that the blues and jazz would be a way of being black and being Scottish at the same time in words, because that's quite difficult to find, so I wasn't just being like another white Scottish writer. And because I didn't have access to being able to write in say...or wasn't confident enough to write in Caribbean voices or African voices, then it seemed that music was a lovely bridge for that. So I have written a lot about jazz and jazz itself interests me because it's such a fluid form and it comes from the blues and I like the idea that black music has shifted and changed. It's like identity in that way, identity's something that's fluid, it's not something that's static and fixed and I'm really interested in writing about identity and how fluid it is, how it's not something that we can just say this person is that kind of person and they stay that kind of person for ever. So music just has been I suppose a wonderful metaphor a wonderful live constantly changing thing to try and grapple with and write about and I think the wonder part about certain pieces of music is that when we're listening to them we can lose ourselves in them, but we can also find ourselves in them, that music defines us, but it also help us to lose our definitions.
Was there any advice which was helpful or inspirational when you started writing?
I went to see a Scottish writer, Alasdair Gray, when I was 16 - my English teacher sent me to him - and he said to me, "There's no doubt about it, in my mind you are a writer." That was really hugely helpful because he said "You are a writer" and I hardly dared use the word about myself. If somebody asks you in the hairdresser's or whatever what you are it doesn't come so easily just to say "I am a writer" which it should, but that was very exciting. But one of the things that I say to writers is to see yourself as a writer. It sounds a silly thing, but actually it's really quite important to see yourself as a writer, to believe that you are a writer and to believe that you have the right to call yourself a writer. I met Audrey Lord when I was very young - the African-American poet, Audrey Lord - and she was also very encouraging because she said to me, because I went through a period of acknowledging being black and not being Scottish because I was annoyed that I'd done the opposite for most of my life once I realised really what was going on, and she said to me "You're both. It's fine to be black and Scottish and you don't need to pick and choose." And I think that's another thing I found very important - that you could embrace apparent contradictions and that those apparent contradictions could be strengths.
On Shakespeare's Sonnets: A Poets' CelebrationBuy
Wish I Was Here, Picador 2011
Darling: New & Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books 2007Buy
The Lamplighter, Bloodaxe Books 2008Buy
Red Cherry Red (Book & CD) Bloomsbury, 2007Buy
Life Mask, Bloodaxe , 2005Buy
Why Don't You Stop Talking? (fiction), Picador, 2002
The Frog Who Dreamed She was an Opera Singer (poems for...Buy
Trumpet (fiction), Picador, 1998