The Opposite of Cabbage by Rob A. Mackenzie
Questions and Answers for The De-Cabbage Yourself! Tour:
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Ivy from Dumbfoundry: 'Voices', a poem from The Opposite of Cabbage, is one slowly-released, rushing breath of a sentence. How does music, breath and speech inform the writing of this and other poems in your book?
Rob A. Mackenzie: The minute you put one word in front of another you’re creating music. No poem can escape that, but some poems resemble Rachmaninov, others The Clash, and some end up like one of those insipid middle-of-the-road songs from the nineties whose name and tune you can never quite remember.
A poem’s musical style is usually set in the first two lines, so I work quite hard to get them right. These days, I try to avoid slack prose at all costs, especially at a poem’s beginning. It takes an amazing continuation to recover from a bland first line like “I looked out the window, and my father,” although it can be done with a surprising second line. However, if the second line is, “waved, and ate his packet of crisps,” the poem, in all likelihood, is doomed. I mean, a line can sound like casual prose and actually not be, but I’m tired of poems that sound like a dashed-off extract from someone’s diary.
'Voices' can be read, along with most other poems mentioned in your questions, at the book’s .pdf sampler, the second poem there. It concerns psychiatric illness in which the chaotic sounds of street and pub mirror what’s going on inside the character’s head. I wanted a long, complex sentence, which might take a little work from the reader to stay with, to illustrate the confusion. I wanted drama too:We staggered down the via della Guerra, the windI tend, like most poets (I think) to use my intuition when writing and only analyse afterwards, if at all. I can hear the hard –a sounds, and the –b and –n sounds. Also at the end of the first line and through the next few lines, there are plenty of unstressed syllables suddenly held up by thumping stresses – these all contribute to an anarchic atmosphere. But that’s post-poem analysis. I simply worked on these lines until they felt right. I always read poems out loud and slave away until the rhythms, the pace and the pauses, are what the poem seems to demand.
snatching at the bedlam of each overflowing bin,
and you told me of voices crowding your head
like sharp stones, as if the entire street had moved in…
It seemed important for this poem to be a single sentence. In early drafts, it had two or three and I consciously adapted it to get rid of the full stops. The closing lines are an attempt to marry form and content, when the long sentence ends:…where my reply, finally
and dutifully performed, is already dulling
to a murmur behind the bed’s bright quilt.
By the way, I love the Scots word 'smirr', so I'm glad it made an appearance in your book. Italian is another language that sounds out in the poems. What do you see is the relationship between these two languages to your work?
I lived for five years in Turin, Italy and have translated a number of Italian poems into English. My Italian isn’t brilliant and is getting worse by the day, but I nevertheless love the country and the language. I use it in poems set in Italy where it feels natural to do so. I’m not really a Scots speaker, but some words are part of my vocabulary when I speak English. Both the Italian and the Scots do offer a sense of place. They give the poems context. Good words don’t emerge from a vacuum, but from a person with a living, breathing identity and personality.
In your poem 'The Listeners', you end with these thought-provoking lines:they feel grief that the night is unrepeatableI see the poem as a comment on art, poetry, the perhaps-futile act of creation. Do you think you write poetry to leave an echo?
as its secrets, as footsteps that leave no echo.
I don’t see any act of creation as futile but a poem needs someone to read it or hear it before it’s done its job. It needs a degree of close attention. The poems I read and enjoy most do leave echoes with me – snatches of sound, insight, rhythm and meaning. It would be great if any of my poems did the same for their readers.
Some people say they write only for themselves, for the sheer joy of creation or out of a need to create. For me, that’s the starting-point. I’ll write the poem. But unread poems can be classified in two ways: a) poems best left unread, and I have plenty of these I wouldn’t want to show anyone, and b) poems that need readers to leave their echoes with. I wish it were easier to tell which poems are which while in the process of writing them.
Threaded through your book is a wry note of humour, especially notable in 'Scottish Sonnet Ending in American', 'Scotlands' and 'Everyone Will Go Crazy', which contains the title of your book. It's like biting into something that's sweet and tangy at the same time, heightening the (bitter)sweetness all the more. Would you mind sharing your thoughts about using humour to address the varied themes in your work?
Humour is underused in contemporary poetry. I’m not really a fan of most ‘light verse’ because light verse isn’t usually funny or, at least, not as funny as it thinks it is (there are exceptions). I prefer deadpan humour, the kind that’s spoken with a straight face, often used to unmask absurdity for what it is. Humour can engage serious subjects and call age-old opinions into question. I enjoy poets such as Zbigniew Herbert, Michael Hofmann, Luke Kennard and Frederick Seidel – all with entirely different styles - partly because they employ that kind of humour to great effect. John Ashbery, at his best, does it as well as anyone. So does Geoffrey Hill from time to time.
Humour allows poets to question their own obsessions without falling into self-pity and it can reveal prejudice and idiocy at the heart of society without any need to mount a political soapbox. It is an antidote to those very serious poems which are constructed in such a way that they sound deep and meaningful, but are only making simple things sound very complicated.
The downside is that it’s easy to hide behind humour. You can laugh at something rather than really engage with it, or drip so much irony over a target that you no longer see the target as it actually is. Like all poetic tools, it’s hard to use well.
For my final question, I'm going to steal one from Kate Greenstreet's First Book Interview series and ask: What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
It’s a great feeling. I’d seen a .pdf copy, which felt unreal. I’d seen the cover on-screen, which was exciting, as I liked the cover a lot, but there’s nothing to beat opening a package containing your book and holding it for the first time. I had thought it might have been anti-climactic, but Salt produce beautiful books, both in hardback (like mine) and in paperback. Even if all you’ve achieved is a slim book that’s going to sell a few hundred copies and then be forgotten about within a few years, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of real achievement and delight.
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