In from the Brink: A meeting with Jamie McKendrick
By Hermione Graham
Jamie McKendrick was born in Liverpool in 1955, and studied at Nottingham and Oxford. He taught English for four years at the University of Salerno in southern Italy, before moving back to England. His first collection, The Sirocco Room (0 UP 1991) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation~ his second, The Kiosk on the Brink, was published in 1993. He is a New Generation poet.
I wonder if the titles of your two collections say something about how you view poetry: perhaps as a place to escape from 'Ill Winds' (a "sirocco room") or as a source ofrefreshment that's bizarre and incongruous set next to the danger and instability of the modem world (a kind of "kiosk on the brink")?
Yes, it did cross my mind it had that valence, though I wouldn't push it too far, because poetry seems to me quite a privileged and safe thing to be doing. I think that's right; the two titles have some connection, apart from the hard "c" sound: this idea of a sirocco room - a small room with the weather on the outside, which threatens it - and the kiosk on the brink also exposed to the elements. I do think the two books are quite complementary. The first book has the slight complication that it's fielding poems from a bit earlier as well, which may stretch the thematic coherence a bit, but, for example, the' Lost Cities l section connects with the second book.
One reviewer of The Sirocco Room, referring particularly to the last poem, 'Mermaid' , felt in the poems a sense "that man has more valuable and more vulnerable compensations than art". Is this a reading you would go along with?
Yes, I remember - David Kennedy, I think it was. I like what he made of that because he linked it to the first poem - this idea of form dissolving into something else. The only thing that seems slightly problematic about his reading was that he proceeded from a kind of oppositional approach between art and life, which I don't personally feel. I don't see a match being played out in a poem between art and life. I see the process of writing as being not exactly involuntary, but just a part of life; it happens in every culture. It's in a much more intimate dialectic with experience; it's not setting its face against experience. That's the only aspect of what he'd written that troubled me. I like the idea that there are compensations apart from art, but I think you could phrase it completely differently - you could change the terms.
Another question linking art with life is your focus on the environment in your poems. Does this awareness affect your lifestyle or your politics - are you an ecological activist?
No, I do nothing but litter the environment, so I couldn't make a claim to be a very good political activist on behalf of it. It is certainly a theme through the poems, but I think there is also a sense of participating in the decay; the person writing the poems is implicated in that, not necessaril y separate. I don't set out with an environmentalist agenda in writing at all, but certain images do recur. 'Ill Wind', for example, which deals with the sirocco, is also dealing with Chernobyl, and the final lines - "And though the leaves were still I heard the wind / snicking the links with its casual shears" - are about that threat: the "abhorred shears" of Milton transferred into a different environment. It came from an experience of being on a completely empty beach and not having read the papers that day which said the cloud was passing over.
Perhaps we could talk about other contemporary poets whom you admire ....
I know for me reading Seamus Heaney when I was about twenty was a very illuminating moment. Wintering Out was the first thing I read and I thought it was a marvellous book - I still do. And moving from him to other Irish poets - Derek Mahon, Tom Paulin, Paul Muldoon are all excellent poets, very important. I do think some of Michael Hoffman's poems are also very interesting.
You also have an interest in earlier American poets, such as Hart Crane, on whom you began a doctorate. What drew you to him in particular?
There is a manner of writing which is,I think, quite alien to contemporary English poetry and which I was drawn to. Some of the love poems like 'Voyages' are very ecstatic and they have a richness and density in the language which are very different from The Movement, from Larkin, and that certainly attracted me. When I read Life Studies by Lowell I thought it was a tremendous book which spoke quite intimately about his family but also about the whole culture, through his family. With Berryman, I was attracted to the idiosyncratic voice and the tonal range: from the comic to the emotionally devastated elements - those terrific elegies in The Dream Songs - to Delmore Schwartz. I think, again, it's that sense of, through a very particularised voice, finding a way into the centre of a culture.
You were saying earlier that at poetry readings, you thought maybe you should put on a stronger Liverpool accent. What do you make of the trend towards an increased regional allegiance among poets? You are from Liverpool, yet you seem deliberately cosmopolitan - England, France, Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia and India are just some of the places which figure in your poems.
Regionalism against internationalism? I would have thought an enlightened regionalism would be able to make 68 those connections, and I think does. There's a good short poem by the Scots poet Robert Crawford who makes a connection between Scotland and Vietnam, which is an example of a culture being a bridge rather than a barrier. I'm sure there is a type of regionalism that's atavistic and chauvinistic, and I think within an English context it can also use very static class coordinates. But having said that, the shift towards regions, which is clearly happening, is probably a good thing. For me, Liverpool is very important as a place. A lot of the first poems I wrote were about Liverpool - though most of them had to be left out of the first book because they weren't good enough.
Except perhaps 'Mersey Plumage'?
Yes, that was a very early poem and I kept it in (perhaps I shouldn't have done) partly because it was the kind of poem that helped me write other poems.
Did you write about your family at this time too?
I think I must have written some family poems under the influence of Robert Lowell but I find there is something antagonistic about poetry and the family. It doesn't particularly interest me.
Is 'Inheritance' partly about that?
Yes, in part it does deal with the family, but behind that is also the idea of a "family history" of banks: if you track backwards through the history of the banks you will find that they're linked very, very closely to the slave trade. So it's a compromised inheritance. I was looking through the magnifying lens of a family at something else. My grandfather was somebody who embodied a capitalist ethic, was from a very poor background, left school early, worked as a cashier in a bank and worked his way up to be the head of a big northern bank. I suppose there's partly an ambivalence about what he left behind and what he became a part of.
So an interest in poetry was not part of your inheritance?
I don't think poetry is that type of inheritance. My greatgrandfather won a Bums Medal for a poem on Bums Day and there were a lot of poetry books in the house - but I think it's a personal engagement. In writing you make up your own family tree. I hardly read a book until I was sixteen then I just read some poems, and the transition from reading to writing poems was almost immediate. It seemed to be a part of the same process. It still does seem to be that. I suppose it comes from the sheer excitement of seeing certain areas of experience there. I think the first things I read were some of Blake's Songs of Experience - 'Sunflower', 'London'. The schooling I'd had hadn't made poetry seem in the slightest bit interesting.
Do you think your four years in Italy came at a particularly formative time?
I suppose any time can be formative. I didn't speak the language and that perhaps made it more of a formative experience; you are thrown back to a slightly vulnerable phase, a prelinguistic phase of communicating through gesture. I guess if I'd been in France I'd have written about France, butthere were specific aspects about being in a particular part of Italy that interested me especially. In the old centre of Salerno, you have this stratification of different cultures all on a street level. The street I lived in was the Via Torquato Tasso - the poet was supposed to have lived there. It was a street with a Roman pillar stuck into the wall, a Norman cathedral at one end of it, a Norman church down the road, an alley-way constructed apparently by the Arabs, and Spanish Baroque architecture of the most extravagant kind - courtyards with sculptures, fantastic arches. There were different levels: the street level receded down into the palazzo by little staircases. The architecture struck me as being a fantastic image of an amalgamation of different histories, different peoples, different eras. Southern Italy has been occupied by Greeks, Romans, Saracens, French and the Spanish Bourbons. I tried to use the idea in 'Darkness in the Mezzogiorno' , in The Sirocco Room. I sometimes feel a bit apologetic that there are so many poems about Italy though in a sense it's not that Italy itself is so important in the poems. But I do feel that poems, for me anyway, have some relation to a sense of place - I have quite a strong visual impression as a starting point.
Poems like 'The Vulcanologist' or 'Lengths of Air' in The Kiosk on the Brink seem to use the idea of layers in a different way.
Yes - in the second book it's linked to a sense of precariousness and vertigo, perhaps emotionally as well as physically. Movements down and upwards, often in spirals, are part of the book's concern. There is a relationship between this sense of a slightly dizzying stratification of culture within the place, and the special metaphor of a basket being dropped down through level after level to sea level. I took as an epigraph Dante's lines from Purgatorio, "salendo e rigirando la montagna / che drizza voi che 'I mondo fece torti," and it's this idea of "going up and turning around the mountain which straightens you" -literally, "whom life twisted, or made contorted". So it's like two spirals, one unravelling the other, and this sense of spiralling upwards and downwards is part of a set of images within the book.
Most of your poems seem to use lines which deviate more or less radically from the pentameter. Would you agree?
I think I began writing with the pentameter. Perhaps that's true of quite a lot of people. It's a very familiar and flexible form. I feel I've moved away from any sense of obligation towards keeping to it. For example, in the second book there may be some influence of a hendecasyllable Italian line - though I'm not sure if you can make a direct equivalent across languages. The sequence about the mountain often returns to the pentameter, but it's stretching it more with an extra syllable or two. So I am interested in forms of irregularity played against a more established form of conventional metre. There are not that many regular pentameters but I think that's the line behind the majority of the poems, with some kind of counterpoint. Some of the earliest poems in The Sirocco Room are written in shorter lines, and then at the end of the second book there are three poems about angels which use a shorter line. The third is shaped, a visual poem.
Like 'The Vulcanologist'?
Yes, and Herbert's 'The Altar' or 'Easter Wings'. It's something I've never been attracted to doing. I found in both cases there was something happening, and I allowed it to happen really. I wouldn't like to have a visual template on a poem. I think the rhythmic element is far more important, but if the one serves the other, that's fine.
Are you working towards a specific goal at the moment; do you have a new project in mind?
Not exactly a project. I have a few poems for a new book which have some connections between them. When I'd finished The Kiosk on the Brink, because I felt it had quite a strong relation to The Sirocco Room, I wanted a change of scenery different areas to look at - but you can't always give yourself a brief and write to it. You often find that certain types of subject-matter recur for you. There must be elements of luck about it - just what comes your way - and you hope it's not more of the same.