WHERE THE RIVER ENDS AND THE SEA BEGINS: An Interview with Stewart Conn

This interview accompanies Richie McCaffery’s review of Stewart Conn’s New & Selected Poems which you can find here.

by Richie McCaffery 

Stewart Conn (b. 1936 in Glasgow) has had a long career as both a poet and dramatist as well as being Head of Radio Drama for BBC Scotland for many years, leaving in 1992. Since then he has published a number of poetry collections, pamphlets and plays, culminating in the substantial The Touch of Time: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2014) which will be reviewed in The Glasgow Review of Books to complement this interview. He has also enjoyed serving as Edinburgh’s first official ‘Makar’ for three years, beginning in 2002. This interview was held at Conn’s Edinburgh home on the afternoon of March 20th 2014 where I was struck by both Conn’s personal expansiveness and modesty. Present also was the poet and editor Gerry Cambridge, who interviewed Conn at length in 2006 for a special issue of his magazine The Dark Horse, published to celebrate Conn’s then 70th birthday.

Richie McCaffery: Stewart, in an interview with Gerry Cambridge in 2006 you said that your earliest work was “two life-times away from me now.” I know your early poems are already well covered; Alexander Scott in his column for The Scots Independent wrote about your much anthologised poem ‘Todd’ and I imagined you reading his column and saying “No, no, no! Not again!” At the risk of such a reaction, can you talk more about your Great Uncle Todd and his influence on your early work?

Stewart Conn: It’s funny you should mention Scott, because when Lesley Duncan and Maurice Lindsay edited the anthology The Edinburgh Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry, Lesley asked if they could use ‘Todd’ and I pleaded with her not to, as it had been anthologised again and again. However, now I’d rather a poem was printed too much than excised out of existence. The double life-time I mentioned was of course generational, but it was also locational and geographical. The farm environment was subsidiary to my life in Kilmarnock at the time but I can look back on these figures like Todd with a boy’s eyes. The danger is in becoming too sentimental, but even as a boy these men were gigantic figures, like Edwin Muir’s horses against the skyline. Oddly enough, at school poetry was not something people regarded. Burns was taught but we’d be punished if we used his Scots words in the classroom. I remember one teacher ploughing through ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ in embarrassment but back on the farm there was a naturalness into which Burns fitted, but Burns the radical. Todd composed poems himself, somewhere between psalms and McGonagall. As such, poetry was very down to earth and since then I have been wary of poetry that is too precious or elitist. “Poet” for me is a definition of trade, not something I accept with ease. But to come back to Todd, he once sacked a land-girl for whistling on the Sabbath – he was made of this fundamentalist granite. Where the poems about him came from I don’t know, I have tried to write in that texture again but can’t because these early poems so much relate to intonations of speech which my ear is now so distanced from. Not till I came to live in Edinburgh could I really absorb Robert Garioch’s poems as having a life beyond the page. Todd remains in my ear as much as being a physical presence in those early poems.

R.M.: While I was reading your prose in Distances (Scottish Cultural Press, 2001) I was reminded of what Sorley MacLean said about the preachers of his boyhood – that they were great preservers and stylists of language (in this case, Gaelic). I get the impression that your mother was very much the reader and your father, the minister, gave you some sense of the performance/spoken element of language.

S.C.: It was an odd background. Upstairs are my mother’s Waverley novels and one rainy day when I was a boy my father gave me his ink-stamp to play with, not dreaming I’d stamp his name on them all. I don’t know if he ever read any of them. Our household wasn’t cultured musically or artistically. My father invited Isobel Baillie to sing in his church, but that for fund-raising more than anything else. His sermons generally had literary references so he must have done some fairly wide reading, but I wasn’t aware of a consciously cultured upbringing apart from being told to speak properly and so on. Nor was Scots part of my upbringing, I remember when the McFlannels came on the radio, my mother would switch it off in embarrassment. I don’t respond easily or naturally to Scots. So much of Scots poetry wasn’t to my ear a spoken language but an act of will without the genius of Hugh MacDiarmid who made something different with it. His lyrical gift aside I found much of Sydney Goodsir Smith just bombast. At the BBC I had to be careful and had many awkward moments. Alex Scott, you mentioned earlier, would storm in like a bittern at the head of a deputation and complain that more plays in Scots weren’t being done. I told him to bring me some, but what counted was how good they were. I was aware of treading a tight-rope as Scots is not instinctually inside me and I couldn’t myself write poetry in it.

R.M.: As a young man with literary interests, you seem to have been reading around Scottish poetry of the 1940s and 1950s, writers like those of the second wave of “The Scottish Literary Renaissance” and “The New Apocalypse,” such as William Jeffrey, G. S. Fraser, Ruthven Todd, Joseph MacLeod, W. S. Graham. Did these poets influence you, were you taken in by the idea of the New Apocalypse – I’m thinking of your very early poem published in Lines Review in 1955 under the title ‘Apocalypse’?

S.C.: My first work in print was a small pamphlet entitled Interrogation – it was deeply inspired by the New Apocalypse and embarrassing. I tried to keep it a secret from my bibliographer Archie Duncan. None of the poets you mentioned meant a great deal to me apart from Sydney Graham – he was the jewel in the jewel chest. There are moments where he uses Scots words, particularly in addressing Nessie Dunsmuir and there are times when, I may be wrong, I sense a certain Scottish word order and intonation that achieves real depth of feeling. But to return to that generation, when anything happens you want to try and supersede it, knock it down. I still remember my horror at the word “renaissance” being used, considering what the actual Renaissance was! There were also gaps – so much misogyny. MacDiarmid too didn’t seem to have any regard for the folk tradition and revival that Hamish (Henderson) was behind. I’m surprised he didn’t acknowledge its influence on his work.

R.M.: I’ve heard someone describe MacDiarmid’s folk-song flytings as an act of kicking the ladder away from underneath you.

S.C.: Oh yes, Hamish had a hard time. So too did Garioch, they were so condescending to him.

Gerry Cambridge: Which is funny because Garioch was probably at least MacDiarmid’s equal.

R.M.: In terms of this thrawn-ness and prickliness of some members of this earlier generation, did you, as a young writer starting out, feel pressured into the expectation of writing in Scots and the artificial effort that would entail?

S.C.: I sensed it more as a playwright, there was a time when if you didn’t write in Scots, you weren’t really considered Scottish.

R.M.: Rather like that phrase of Douglas Young’s “the Scottish accent of the mind.”

S.C.: “What’s that?” Norman MacCaig would say. Whose Scottish accent? There are many Scottish accents, how do you define what it is?

R.M.: What was it like to work with the publishers Callum MacDonald and Duncan Glen of Akros on your first two pamphlets, The Chinese Tower and Thunder in the Air?

S.C.: I knew of Lines Review and Akros as I’d submitted poems there. I remember very little about them. It was just a manuscript that went away in the post and came back with some squiggles on it that you had to change. I don’t honestly remember them as people but more as enablers from a distance.

R.M.: Considering what you’ve said about your Great Uncle Todd showing you a natural, unpretentious form of poetry, or at least an approach to poetry, I’d like to mention your ‘Chinese Tower’ sequence. It seems to me that the recurrent blueness you mention in it says a lot about your wish to be accessible as a poet. For instance, Larkin writes about an almost terrifyingly omnipresent but also inexpressible blueness in ‘High Windows’. Here, in your sequence, you talk about big themes as being ‘penetrable’.

S.C.: At the time I hadn’t read Larkin but the sequence was inspired by Wallace Stevens. My wife Judy gave me a copy of his Collected Poems and it had such a seductive impact on me it was like walking around the rim of a syrup tin, afraid to fall in. But I’m glad you think it’s accessible.

R.M.: In approaching your New & Selected Poems, I was recently reading Hugo Williams’ Collected Poems and in the introduction he writes that he was reluctant to bring out a “Collected Poems” because of the finality that represents. Do you have such a volume planned?

S.C.: In my New & Selected I begin with figures two generations away from me, Todd and such and then end with a trio of poems for my first grandson Ellis. I feel that’s quite an arc both autobiographically and poetically and while I’m not shutting the door, this book I feel is my nearest to a “Collected” – I don’t have the quantity or the desire to boost it with other poems.

R.M.: Discussing ekphrastic poetry, James Aitchison has said that “poems prompted by paintings are a difficult genre.” There’s your much lauded ‘Angel with Lute’ but I was wondering about how you approach writing poems about artworks. I’m thinking particularly about your poem ‘In the Gallery’ where you use the fact that the Turner watercolours you are about to see are only displayed for a month a year in case they fade, and how you relate this to marriage.

S.C.: The art poems approach me, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. It’s usually a person in a painting or their gaze and there’s a moment where something takes over, where these figures are beginning to have their say. My writing enables them to speak and often they are speaking to me. There is a control necessary, having looked back over my poems on paintings. For instance, Paul Durcan’s poems about art use art as a stepping-off point for an elaboration which produces a poem which can almost be cut away from the painting whereas I’m always staying within the bounds of possibility of the painting, I consciously remain within a frame. You mention ‘In the Gallery’ with its marital analogy, but many of these poems are to do with Judy’s presence as well as the paintings. For instance, in ‘In the Palazzo’ there is a telescopic effect:

Alone in a room, concentration
unbroken, in that stillness before
the crowds intrude, your presence
 
adds in a wider frame such intimacy
and dimension as lastingly convey
all that it means to you and you to me.

Here the bystander is not subservient to the painting.

R.M.: One of the great leitmotifs in your work seems to be of water, snow and ice. In your poems about ice what are you trying to do, thaw the ice, get under it, or something else?

S.C.: I don’t know. Thaw certainly, such as my snowman poem, which is inspired too by Wallace Stevens. But I don’t think they all hang together. With my collection Under the Ice I had chosen the title and consciously set out to write poems on the theme. But when Estuary happened, I’d wanted to call the collection something completely different but then Hamish [Whyte] came up with ‘Estuary’. The tiny wee fragments at the end, about Judy and hospital, mean the most to me – they are chips of love poems but they are the poems I would keep. In putting the collection together I was absolutely stuck, there was something missing. One night I went to bed after hours of getting no-where. I switched on the radio and the announcer said that a Sibelius symphony had two movements that weren’t separated, but that they were like a loch going into a river. I leapt up and jotted down the phrase (which I use in the poem ‘Tide’) and I realised that the entire book mirrors where the river ends and the sea begins, aging, our lives and so on.

R.M.: I’m delighted you have singled out these shorter, lyrical poems from Estuary as they strike me too as some of your finest work. The esturarine imagery is curious – it suggests both a terminus of sorts but also something liminal or transitional. Does this mean your work is going off in a different direction?

S.C.: I’m not very good at new directions. You always hope what you are writing is not terminal [laughs] but at the moment I’m writing short poems about music and musicians, but how long that will last and what will come of it, I can’t say.

R.M.: You seem reluctant to embrace the appellation “poet.”

S.C.: That’s why I like “makar.” In Edinburgh “makar” is of course appropriate to Dunbar but I also like it because it doesn’t claim anything more than craft – a maker, as opposed to the romantic connotations of the title “poet.” Eddie Morgan was opposed to the title, but I like it.

R.M.: Finally and speaking of Morgan, you are, alongside Jen Hadfield, one of the judges of the first Edwin Morgan Poetry Award for young Scottish poets. How do you see the Scottish poetry scene nowadays, are you excited about up and coming poets?

S.C.: I’m very excited by the current state of play. I have no qualms whatsoever about the quality and variety of the up-and-coming work, it’s terribly refreshing. For so long one clique or another tried to dictate how writers should write and think. We seem to have stopped drawing up these dividing lines – for instance between English and Scots – and I think the renaissance is really an ongoing process, not something exclusive to the 1940s and 1950s. Scottish poets being accepted down South is itself something of a sea change and I’m crossing my fingers that the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award will reflect emergent talents. As an old codger [laughs] I have no hesitation in passing the baton on – the range of young poets establishing themselves in Scotland is quite stunning.

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