Robin Robertson on how the culture around poetry has changed dramatically.
In this Man Booker 2018 longlist interview Robin Robertson tells us why he wanted to challenge himself to write a book on a large scale and why after finishing The Long Take he’s not working on anything else just yet.
What’s it like being on the longlist for the first time?
It’s still rather bewildering. The Long Take is, after all, a narrative poem, so it never crossed my mind that it would be eligible. Now, finding that it is, through the judges’ open-handed understanding of how stories can be told in different ways, I’m delighted – though, being Scottish, slightly ashamed of taking the place of some more practised storyteller.
How did you get into poetry?
I was lucky to be brought up within earshot of the oral tradition of myth, folksong and storytelling, close to the sea, with the mountains within reach, and all that – along with a solitary nature and an attraction to complex craftsmanship – meant that poetry felt important to me from an early age.
What inspired The Long Take?
I wanted to challenge myself, and write something on a large scale – something that could accommodate many of the interests that couldn’t be easily addressed in individual poems: the ambivalence I feel toward cities, particularly American cities, and especially American cities in the pivotal post-war decade – with the best jazz and the best movies. I wanted to write about an outsider, a Canadian soldier damaged by PTSD, coming to this land of opportunity and finding a country that had won the war but was destroying itself and its people. I was interested in how those years saw the entrenchment of civic corruption and division, and the institutionalisation of the ‘circling the wagons’ philosophy: the deep paranoia about all ‘outsiders’ (including their own black citizens) which has led directly – through McCarthy, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – to the current administration.
Has poetry changed since you began writing? In what direction do you see it heading?
The ‘culture’ has changed dramatically in the past decade. With the advent of social media everyone has a ‘voice’ and an ‘experience’: everyone can decide to be what they want to be, without having to go through the irritating, time-consuming business of learning the craft. They just find the nearest platform. So, everywhere I turn, there is someone being introduced as ‘a poet’. At the same time, the guardians of the culture, experts in every different field, are now being pilloried as ‘elitist’, so we are moving towards a pasteurised, populist culture with zero attention span.
What are you working on next?
I’m all used up, for the moment. As David Jones said in the preface to The Anathemata: ‘I have made a heap of all that I could find.’ I threw everything I had into this omnium gatherum of a book; the cupboards are empty, and so am I.