Interview with Stewart Conn, former Edinburgh City Makar
Stewart Conn recently spent three years as Edinburgh's Makar, or Poet Laureate. Roddy Lumsden asked him a few questions about the post and his subsequent collection Ghosts at Cockrow.
This is your first poetry collection since Stolen Light, a weighty Selected Poems. Was it like starting from the beginning again?
Very much so. Particularly in that the Selected volume felt 'rounded off' in not just poetic but human terms – largely due to the last-minute incorporation of what had begun as 'notes' sent to Iain Crichton Smith of things I didn't want left unsaid, but which grew unpremeditatedly into a sequence I felt could (with editing) be published. And having little 'overflow' from the previous volume I was also conscious (see the opening poem in Ghosts at Cockcrow) of the real and metaphoric whiteness which lay ahead.
You've recently spent three years as Edinburgh's Poet Laureate. Was this a one-off or are you handing the baton to another 'makar'?
The term makar I found gratifying, in laying claim to no more than craft and in having to my ear an egalitarian ring as against laureate, with its whiff of Parnassus – yet against this, being so resonant of the great mediaeval flowering of Scottish poetry. It was a pleasure (in some ways a relief) when the time came to hand the baton on to Valerie Gillies, who has now succeeded me.
You've lived in the city a long time. Did you have to re-focus your view of the place?
Emphatically yes. In the early 1960s, with Glasgow my home, a BBC attachment imposed a stay of several months in Edinburgh. The two cities seemed light years apart, socially and culturally as well as poetically. And I had to adjust not least aurally, to writers as varied as MacCaig and Garioch to whom I was fortunate in having access. On coming to live here permanently in 1977 I felt a need to 'belong' (in a way, to re-establish an identity) before becoming 'entitled' to write about the city. Knowing it was my mother's birthplace, and settling with my family, helped. But becoming makar, though mercifully no 'civic verse' was demanded of me, reactivated as it were an obligation to reflect the city in my work – in turn intensifying that need to 'belong'. One poem reveals how the belated discovery that my grand-father's licensed grocer's had been in the High Street "made me feel less an interloper, / than one who has been long away". A growing albeit lingeringly ambivalent affection for the city also helped.
My 'view of the place' was much informed by tracing the footsteps of past poets who'd put their stamp on the city, and in turn bore its imprint ... in refamiliarising myself with their poetry – and attuning myself to Fergusson, his urban music so different from Burns, on whom I'd been weaned. An outcome of this 're-focus' is the presence in Ghosts at Cockcrow of a sequence named after Roull of Corstorphin, elegised in Dunbar's great Lament, whom I try to bring to life as Edinburgh's earliest poet.
Travel is one of your favourite starting points for poetry. This book contains a travelogue about Burgundy. Of all the places you have travelled, which has been most instantly inspiring, and which has proved most elusive to capture?
Most 'instantly' and recurringly France... from Provence shortly after my marriage when a feeling of liberation, allied I suppose to a receptiveness of the senses, were at one with the affections. There have been recurrences, Venice and Barcelona especially interweaving love and place.
All are in a sense 'elusive to capture', perhaps because something of that 'elusiveness' is most what I'm trying to pin down. Particularly in conjuring up Botswana's magical Okavango Delta – the most breathtaking place I've ever been. In contrast visits to South Africa, the first during the 1984 emergency, proved a salutary reminder of the extent to which a true poet must not just see... but see.
A quote on the back describes your work as 'quite unsentimental'. Yet, it's a double-edged word. In its positive sense of evoking feelings, I think it's suitable for much of your work. Are you wary of a fine line between the two meanings?
I suppose I've always seen 'sentiment' as permissible, but 'sentimentality' not: in so far as the former is regarded as containing or inducing feeling, while the latter wallows in it (I rather like too, the ambiguity in the word 'quite', in the jacket quote). At one stage I determined to stop writing any more 'farm poems', partly for fear of repeating myself but also in an awareness that never having lived on or been economically dependent on the farm, identifying too closely with rural life could seem 'sentimental'... which I hope the existing poems aren't – but that's not for me to judge. But must 'true' feeling conform with one's own or some external yardstick? I suspect there's often a narrow margin, and a dependence on taste. Certainly much of the poetry to which I respond shows compassion for the human condition.
There are a few poems here on artworks. Poetry tutors like me are always telling students to avoid poems on paintings. How do you think they work best?
I'm intrigued that you steer students clear of 'poems on paintings', whereas others say they advocate this to writing groups. Maybe a slippery slope – but in the long run, I feel a poem relating to or inspired by a painting will stand or fall on its merit, rather than through any prescription or proscription. Much depends I suspect, on whether the reader is drawn imaginatively into or excluded from the painting.
Some poets see paintings as exciting stepping-off points; others often seem simply to trade on them.
Stolen Light contains a sequence of dramatic monologues called 'The Luncheon of the Boating Party'. Besides responding to and hoping to 'illumine' the work and tap its warmth, and beyond the painting itself, it was triggered by a photograph of the old and infirm Renoir; and I suspect hopes to comment not just on art, but on his indomitability. In this I'm aware of the bonus but also the danger of the painting being universally known. In contrast and while 'Angel with Lute', the last poem in Ghosts at Cockcrow, relates to a specific fresco, the central figure is left to flower in the reader's imagination.
What are you currently working on?
A piece to be set to music for a small orchestra, soloists and choir. And editing a poetry anthology. So far as my own poems go, I'm currently concentrating on two sequences, one on music and musicians, the other love-poems, which I hope will interrelate. Interestingly in the light of your previous question, the most recent of the former batch was sparked off by a painting of a musician...