August 11, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Interview with Chris McCabe by Dominik Grabowski
1. Why did you start writing poetry? Did you know from the start this was what you wanted to do?
I can remember walking down the school corridor, when I was about five years old, in a crocodile-line of children, and thinking about the distinction of meanings between ‘watch’ and ‘witch’. One to see – for time – the other something that scared me. How could the words be similar and affect me so differently? My dad brought poetry books into our house as we grew up, which was quite subversive for a working class home in Liverpool. He joined a book club and ordered a three-volume cased hardback edition of The Oxford English Verse (ed John Wain). My dad died in 2004 but I’ve still got those books. There was also music, lyrics, again from under my dad’s influence – Bowie and Dylan, in particular. In school, when I was about 14, we looked at Wordsworth’s Prelude – that set some peculiar synapses firing. And a poem by Vernon Scannell called ‘Hide and Seek’. The synapses attempted to coil into serifs, into new words – my own words – from 16 onwards. I was studying Marlowe, Shakespeare, Browning, Plath and Owen – this was an excitement that came with poetry, the ejector seats of each line, each word; detachable from its moving hulk that didn’t seem quite as possible with other written forms. The uncoiling serifs that didn’t die ended at home, secretively, in A4 jotters next to my bed. The writing remained that way until University when, with a couple of friends, we spurred each other on and show each other what we were writing. It was only at university, from the age of 21 or so, that I became quite dedicated in my writing – building up work and sending it off to editors. Looking back on all this I can see there was nobody who pushed me on, or said I was good at this, or encouraged me – it was something that developed organically from my reading and, even after a year or two, seemed somehow inseparable from how I imagined I would be able to make sense of the world, or at least my own place in it. Listening to the curious distinctions of words, the malapropisms, the previously unheard. A conviction that nothing is wasted – your ears open at the same time as your eyes, or as Olson said, the ear next to the mind for the mind’s following of each syllable, spoken or heard.
2. Is there a particular process you use when writing poetry?
I have spoken to other poets and have found that I’m quite unusual in carrying potential lines of poetry around in my head, and adding to them as new connections emerge. Once I’ve identified a core idea, or collection of words, that seem distinct enough to work with then just holding them in my mind can have a cumulative effect, attracting the iron filings of overheard speech, found texts, distinct words to the core of the developing piece. Writing the poem down is often the process of doing that – just writing. The shape and form of the poem is already pictured, though as with most acts of conception in art the challenge seems to be to make it into the real imagined thing in the least disappointing way possible. This process of carrying words around in my mind before writing them down often comes full circle for the performance of a poem – as the thing was already in my head to begin with I can often easily recall the rhythm and order of the piece to be able to perform it from memory.
3. Why did you write about politics in your collection The Hutton Inquiry? Do you think poetry like this can make a difference in the 21st century?
Writing poems about the second war in Iraq and the death of David Kelly came about almost by default. I was writing a thesis about Freedom of Information under New Labour and as a I turned over the ruses and deceipts laid down in their uses of language, policies, emails I found myself moving forward with the thesis but also working towards a written piece in a different kind of language. I had two notebooks open, one for the prose piece and one for the poems that were emerging from the easy deconstruction of Labour’s simultaneously naive and deceptive abuses of language. There was a sense of reclamation in this : language had been so far broken-down and trampled upon to be almost unusable as a form of communication. The recycling into poetry seemed fitting. What happens when you find the abused words resurfacing in a form that cherishes delicacy in the positioning of each syllable and inflection on the page? The question of whether writing about politics makes a difference is very different from whether it’s important. Make a difference to who? In this country at least the potential for the central active presence of the poet in politics and society frittered out with the Romantics – probably when Wordsworth became Poet Laureate (though he was never the political trouble of Shelley). Even in the 20th Century we never had a Mayakovsky moment. But just because a poet can’t fill a football stadium with an audience doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, in the same way as someone might choose not to join a march because ‘it never changes anything anyway’. Poets are the keepers of the language, the integrity the poet has to the ramifications of each possible meaning they create is an antidote to the endless wash of advertising and spin. In the words of Charles Bernstein: “language control = thought control = reality control”. Through a non-controlling questioning of language poets are instinctively pushing back against the enforced Logos, presenting new realities for readers.