Roddy Lumsden Interviews Kevin Williamson
In the early 1990s, Rebel Inc magazine blazed a trail for new Scottish writing, showcasing younger writers such as Laura Hird, Gordon Legge, Paul Reekie, Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh. Rebel Inc later became an imprint with Canongate Books. The man behind Rebel Inc was Kevin Williamson. Originally from Thurso, Williamson has been keenly involved with Scottish books, culture and politics in the past two decades. His first full collection of poetry In a Room Darkened was recently published by Two Ravens Press, one of Scotland's most vibrant newer publishers.
Some of the poems here date back quite a long way - do you still relate to the person you were then? Were you tempted to rewrite older poems?
The earliest of the poems go back to 1992, when I was 31, so they span a fifteen year period. I'm quite a restless person so a lot of water has flown under many bridges. I feel a lot more relaxed now, more appreciative of time and space, love and friendships, shades of grey. Conversely a lot of my ideas, thoughts and actions have become more extreme, more blurred around the edges, and more anarchistic. I no longer feel that I need any certainties to fall back on but I do need a different language to articulate these things. So there's been a progression in the poetry but with ruptures and convulsions along the way. I should say too that because of the 15 year time span there is an unwanted narrative running through these poems which I chose to conceal by sleight of hand, arranging them in alphabetical order. As regards rewriting I rewrite obsessively, rarely taking less than a year to finish even a short poem, often when it's just a single word that jars. Once I feel a poem is finished then that's it. It's an intuitive thing. I wasn't tempted to drastically alter or add to any of the older poems as I'm not sure they would still reflect the emotions and feelings of when they were originally written. Poetry has to have an innate honesty permeating every line or it will be transparent and false to the reader. But I tweaked a couple of the poems that needed tweaking because there's also that damned thing about striving for perfection. It's like a disease. But it's part of the whole process.
'Poetry has gone soft' begins one of your poems... just a jibe? Or do you think contemporary poetry often fails to engage the reader, or fails to engage with the trials of modern life?
If you walk into the trap of generalising about "poetry" and especially "contemporary poetry", or what the essence of poetry is all about, you're just constructing a noose to insert your own prejudices and ignorance into. In that particular poem I had a particular poetry in mind. I try to avoid poetry which is all pyrotechnics but no heart. And poetry that is blindly self-obsessed or smug and complacent. I seek out poetry that makes me feel alive. But reading the so-called Poet Laureate sycophantically dribbling on about the enduring marriage of Lizzie The Last and her daft Greek spouse makes me want to vomit in Mr. Motion's face and cut off his hands. Mind you, when it comes to my own writing, I've got no hesitation about throwing my own prejudices and ignorance into the mix, if the mix demands it. Holding two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time is a very Scottish thing and an ability that I treasure and want to hold onto.
Two Ravens Press is quite a new publisher - can you tell us a bit about it?
Two Ravens are essentially David and Sharon, a husband and wife team based in the remote north-west of Scotland. They publish about 6-8 books a year, including a number of first time authors and poets. They're lovely people and real literature enthusiasts who turned down the easier option of publishing non-fiction, deciding to only publish poetry and fiction. Bless them. Given how difficult it is for small publishers of poetry and fiction - especially in Scotland where you know the English distributors, English book stores and English media will totally ignore you - it is quite a brave step they've taken. It marked them out for me as the kind of adventurous small publishing house that I want to be associated with, and they're now building up a growing reputation based on a good list. The decision to go with them has been more than justified. Two Ravens allowed me creative input into the cover design (a painting by Emer Martin inspired by Irish mythology), page layout, font, and even paper weight. I doubt if any larger publisher would have done this. As a result I'm really pleased with all aspects of the book's design and feel, and I love these guys all the more for it
There's plenty of name-dropping in this book (Cromwell, Gram Parsons, Karl Marx, Ginsberg, Slade, etc). Of all the people mentioned, who is most important to you?
Perhaps Norman MacCaig. There's a couple of poems in the collection where he features. The first poetry book I ever read from cover to cover was MacCaig's The Equal Skies. I got it from the Thurso Public Library when I was about 19 or 20 and even now it's still one of my favourite poetry books. I love Norman MacCaig's poetry. It has a lightness of touch, a surefootedness, and a clarity of expression, as well as a wild and sensuous beauty. I feel a deep affinity with the man, perhaps because his heart was also torn between the two places in Scotland he loved most: Edinburgh and the Highlands. These are the same two places which have created me. I never met MacCaig but I spoke to him once on the phone. I made a right tit of myself asking him to get involved in some hair-brained scheme of mine that involved him reading his verse standing on a wooden soap box in Princes Street Gardens. "I don't do soapboxes" he said and put the phone down on me. Which I subsequently found out was true. And his poetry was all the better for it.
Rebel Inc, the magazine you started which became a literary imprint, was a great success - any regrets about how it all went?
Hmm. It's still too early for me to give Rebel Inc more than a cursory glance backwards but I'm proud of what Rebel Inc achieved, especially the work done in partnership with Jamie Byng and Canongate Books. Even if it eventually blew up in both our faces, the creative tension and personal friction between myself and Canongate / Byng may have contributed positively to the project's cutting edge. It just didn't feel like that at the time. There's no doubt Rebel Inc ended abruptly in 2001 while it was still at the peak of its creative cycle. There were reasons for that which would take too long to explain. Rebel Inc was so wrapped up in where I was at personally, creatively and politically that there was an inherent instability in the whole project from day one. Still, Rebel Inc never became ordinary or predictable or all about money. It blazed its trail and then exploded. Probably an appropriate way to end.
Via Rebel Inc, you had a lot of involvement (and friendship) with Irvine Welsh. Do you have a favourite of his books? He's been very productive in the past few years - what do you think of his more recent works?
I'm a big fan of Irvine's writing and read everything he publishes. His productivity rate scares me though. It can no longer be about money or fame or success or reputation. It can only be for a love of writing and a need to tell stories. Of his more recent work the novel Glue is my favourite. It could be an age thing. The characters in Glue went through three distinct phases in their lives and I felt I could relate closely to all three phases, being roughly the same age as them. Glue was a bit special. You were taken on an epic and very emotional journey. Characters such as Juice Terry were inspired. Irvine's latest book – If You Like School You'll Love Work – not only has a title to die for, the 200 page novel at the end is a beautiful, twisted, insightful work of love, friendship and freedom. Although it's funny as fuck, and meticulously researched as always, Irvine toys playfully with readers assumptions and pre-conceptions of how an Irvine Welsh novel will pan out. I almost cried with joy at the end of that book. It was genuinely uplifting feelgood fiction. I didn't expect that! Even the fighting dug ends up un-mutilated and happy.
Your book (Drugs and the Party Line) argued against the government's drugs policy. Events since suggest your arguments were right - is this still an issue which concerns you?
My interest in the subject has always been personal rather than academic and that hasn't changed. I still feel it's hypocrisy that cannabis, acid, ecstasy and suchlike are illegal but more dangerous drugs like alcohol and cigarettes are sold on every street corner. Since 2004, after a kamikaze attempt to open a cannabis café in Edinburgh went up in smoke, I chose to step back from publicly campaigning on the issue. It was becoming full-time, cutting across other things I needed to do, and I stepped back for personal reasons. In the last few years things have gone so far backwards I may reconsider this decision. I still feel strongly about it. The British government have cynically exploited the post-9/11 confusion to attack our freedoms and privacy, to undermine democracy, and to re-energise their pointless war on drugs. It's depressing the way this goes round in circles. Politicians are cowards and dishonest when it comes to drugs. But change is incremental. I feel that the ideas I raised on the issue did push some small cogs which have in turn pushed other small cogs which may yet have a positive impact. We'll see.
Which new or young Scottish writers interest or excite you?
All of them.
- Glue - - Paperback
Glue is the story of four boys growing up in Edinburgh. Follow their lives from the 1970s to the new century, from punk to techno, from speed to Es, see each of them as they struggle to get away from the conditioning of class and culture.
- In A Room Darkened - - Paperback
Kevin Williamson was founding editor of the legendary Rebel Inc. publishing house. This is his first collection of poetry.