Interview with Niall Campbell

I talked to Niall Campbell about his first collection ‘Moontide‘ (Bloodaxe 2014).

PART ONE: THE POET

Paul: Where did you grow up? What’s the predominant image that comes to you?

Niall: A couple of years ago I read The Good Story which is a collection of letters exchanged between novelist J.M. Coetzee and psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz – their aim was to examine the stories we tell as writers and to compare these to the stories we tell, to others and to ourselves, about our own lives – how do we convince ourselves of our rightness or our goodness, is it a type of storytelling, for example. Good concept for a book, no?

There’s a nice anecdote about Jonathan Franzen and how he doesn’t talk about his background anymore; his main reason being that it is the only story that he cannot change. As a writer he was used to changing, amending, imagining/re-imagining – and he found his own biography so frustratingly fixed. I can empathise with this stance – I’ve started the answer, here, a couple of times and feel a similar bind. Only I wonder if it is because I am re-treading old, fixed ground (old for me at least) or if it is a struggle because my life and upbringing on the Outer Hebrides feel so far off.

Traveling from the Scottish mainland to Uist, at the time of growing up there, could easily take eight-ten-twelve hours by the large Calmac boat leaving from Oban on Scotland’s west-coast; there are few (if any) trees as the salt-infused wind coming off the Atlantic burns saplings; we cut peat; we fished for crabs, mackerels and the little fish that would hide in the weeds that grew off the piers; it’s cold and you can watch the gulls diving into the sea from your window.

Writing this I can picture all of it – but the scales have rebalanced recently – and I have now been on the mainland for longer I spent on Uist in my childhood. It’s an odd position to be in – and one that is perhaps irrelevant to people other than myself. But I address it as being asked about Uist now feels slightly dislocated, slightly removed – and so the islands is a topic I feel I could only speak authentically (ah, that word) about while addressing the fact of the complication.

Paul: Were you exposed to much poetry from the Outer Hebrides at school? When did you begin writing poetry and what was your way in?

Niall: I wasn’t exposed to much poetry at all – I remember Edwin Muir’s ‘Childhood‘ being discussed, and some Shakespeare, but little other than that. I try to remember this as a parent – there is sometimes the sense that children need exposed to everything at a young stage for it to shape their later interest in it – age three: here’s space, dinosaurs, knights, musical instruments, books, sport, etc – but thinking of my own situation gives me comfort that my son will find his way.

Writing-wise, I studied literature at university – I studied quite a linear route from early renaissance poetry (1550 or so) through to late-Victorian (1910 or thereabouts) – can you tell in my writing that modernism never happened for me?! Ha, I think you can. But yes, writing came through reading and wanting to take part in that conversation.

 

PART TWO: THE BOOK

Paul: How did you structure and sequence the poems in Moontide? [see reviews here in The Guardian, PN Review and Dave Poemsplus Sphinx three-fold review of his earlier 2012 pamphlet ‘After the Creel Fleet’ from HappenStance].

Niall: I’m actually at that stage again now, thinking about structure and sequence – I’m hoping to have a new book out in the spring/early summer of 2019. It is such an interesting process, compiling poems together, finding out which poems suit and compliment their page-partner, which chime with others and which need cut. There’s no great art to it – just laying them out together and seeing how they hold. It’s quite a basic, untidy technique – but it seems to work.

Paul: Your last book begins with a short eight-line poem called ‘Song’. You refer to singing and birds throughout the book. To what extent do you consider yourself a poet, and therein, a musician?

Niall: The reason for the shorter poem was to act against the usual bookending of best poem first, next best poem last. I think this ordering works against so many books – usually because these ‘big’ poems are not representative of what follows and it generally disturbs any flow to have these two big poems tent-poling each end with everything else sagging between them. It mainly rewards the Waterstones poetry shelf browser who will ‘give that first poem a chance’.

I prefer when the smaller poem acts as a type of coda as to how the book will be. That poem, ‘Song’, would not have worked as the 8th, 22nd or 40th poem – but I think it did work as an introduction to the book’s themes about music and solitude, and introduced the quieter lyric element that the booked aimed for.

As for the actual question, yes I do think of poets as closer to musicians than prose writers. I don’t have an issue with folk calling Bob Dylan a poet – though my contention would be that he is one not because of his lyrics, but because of his use and understanding of rhythm (the inbuilt rhythmic stutter in Highway 61 Revisited, for example).

Paul: Is it a coincidence that you have written poems inspired by Rodin? You seem drawn to themes of work and craft, would you agree?

Niall: It was a recurrent theme in the first book – and there are still echoes of this in some newer poems. I think you can look to ideas of what a poet is: Shelley and his unacknowledged legislators, Rilke and poets acting as mediums of what is coming, and then maybe the Celtic idea of the poet as maker (Scotland’s Laureate position being the Makar). It is a humbler understanding of the poet’s position in this makar or maker variety – a bit less withdrawn from the everyday world, a bit less above it. The poet as maker is more present in the world, even if only because they are present as another maker of things.

Paul: In ‘The Work’ you imagine six different types of poet, from the whaler poet to the waiter poet. Which one is closest to you? Have you thought of any others since?

Niall: I can empathise with all of the types – but at the time of writing that poem I was literally the waiter-poet. More and more, there is a cloistered sense of what a poet is or what their work should be, and as much as the poem was about creativity it was also having a bit of fun with what roles the poet could or could not be seen to do. I was a waiter at the time – and it wasn’t great way to make a living, but now and then the poetic sensibility popped into the work, such as when polishing wine-glasses to the light, and there seemed a harmony there between the two things I did. I enjoyed these moments.

Paul: Whisky or tobacco?

Niall: Whiskey. Tut tut.

Paul: You have three poems set in and inspired by Grez-sur-Loing, south of Fontainebleau. Why did this place feed your writing so?

Niall: The Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship (and its month in the village of Grez) was the first to treat me as a writer who might write something worthwhile. I’ve been lucky with a lot of support from organisations since, but this was the first one – and it was a thrill to be told ‘Go. Do what you like.’ There’s a lot of trust in that. And the place itself – it was the shock of the warm weather, the taste of living a different lifestyle. And there was the wine.

Paul: What do you admire about Zola? Do you have a favourite novel, French or otherwise?

Niall: I go through phases of obsession with different writers – I read a number of novels by Zola, but have not read a novel by him in five years. A more recent obsession has been Emmanuel Carrère Lives Other Than My Own, The Kingdom and My Life as a Russian Novel (such good titles, no?) – I’d recommend him more than Zola. I find it difficult, the idea of total immersion in poetry and only poetry. I miss the ability to swap genre from book to book: Coetzee to Jeff Vandermeer to Julia Kristeva. And miss that ability to get lost down the rabbit-hole of a writer’s previous publications – I read these Carrère books in a month or so – and I was so gloriously bereft when I had finished all his autobiographical works.

Paul: I just read your poem ‘The Juggler’. Can you juggle?

Niall: I can barely hold.

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PART THREE: POETRY LIFE:

Paul: What is your day job? How do you fit in your writing?

Niall: I am a debt advisor for a charity – can you imagine, with the UK as it is, how busy we are at the moment? It can mean dealing with people who have suffered bereavements, illness, unemployment and homelessness – and often you will see the unconscious social pressures to spend when you cannot afford it: new cars, holidays, things that we are told is expected that we should have.

I could talk for quite a long time at what I think are cultural problems, regarding desires and expenditures, but I should, I suppose, talk about writing. I believe in the fact that one only has so much emotional energy – and I do feel the work takes more than I should maybe allow. Writing is, at the moment, happening on the margins of life, but that is ok. Interesting things sometimes happen there.

Paul: Does your job in any feed into your writing or do you keep it apart?

Niall: No. The work is its own thing, and so vastly different: it is about day-to-day living decisions for people, dealing with the minutiae of single pounds going to this or this. It is about supporting people and trying to get them some relief for their situation. (Writing this I wonder if there is the function of poetry to help support?) – But no, I see the writing as something different, and maybe something of a relief from this mindset of stalling over figures and money, and the focus on short-term or medium-term impacts. I like poetry when it aims to be broader and aims at something beyond the immediacy of this moment or time.

Paul: What do you collect?

Niall: Do you know what – nothing. When I was growing up on the islands it wasn’t unknown to do a burning. I want to put commas around that to make it ‘a burning’. More ritual, more atmosphere. It was the early 90s, so forgive us. But we would take the torn clothes, broken toys, general life debris and burn it in an area away from the house. How cathartic – what a violent removal. I have a few art prints – but to be honest there’s nothing I own that I wouldn’t get over the loss of pretty quickly.

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Paul: How has fatherhood affected you?

Niall: I remember Don Paterson being asked in class how it felt for a book to win this or that – and how he had said he found it a strange experience as he felt that the book had been written by some previous version of himself, but not himself. Similarly, I don’t know how parenthood has changed me, other than to say whoever that person was before they are not me now. How did I spend my time – did I socialise? did I daydream more? – I have no clue. Maybe it is an evolutionary quirk, a means to stop us comparing what I assume is the freedom of the child-free life with the responsibilities that follow. Was I happy before – again I don’t know. But I’ve happiness now.

Paul: What’s your relationship with social media?

Niall: I had nothing against social media, a priori (as the philosophers say) – I was on Facebook for a bit in my 20s, twitter for a couple of years (off and on) and some may recall seeing my brief hiccupped month on Instagram. I see the appeal – this interview will perhaps reach more people through social media than by any other route. So, it is a way of sharing information – but information that is essentially made redundant in the space of, what, a one-day cycle? It’s constantly renewing, but constantly discarding – and I don’t think that is healthy.

I’ve given the example of my blog in another interview – the day after winning the Edwin Morgan Award it had close to 1000 visitors – the very next day it was back to the usual two or three. Our triumphs are temporary – then gone. There are other things, too, about the reductionism of most topics to ‘goodies and baddies’, and instant reaction – but it does just boil down to individual taste and it’s just not for me. I do miss the brief online friendships I had made – but I made the decision that it was better for me not to do it.

Paul: Where does the poem begin?

Niall: I love thinking of the answer to a question like this. But would hate to actually answer it – I have nothing concise or clear to say about the start of a poem. I liked what Zadie Smith said about writing – I write to stop myself sleepwalking through my life. I think before I was a parent I would not have answered it like this – but now, yes, I think the poem is a desire to speak to others, it is about making a gesture towards being present in the world.

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