SRB interviews poet and publisher Colin Will
SRB: What was your first published poem?
CW: My first published poem came out of an experience when I was librarian at the Botanics in 1988. I got an enquiry from an American professor of botany who was researching rhubarb in cultivation. Edinburgh was one of the first centres where the rhubarb plants were cultivated, they came from Russia and China. The Regius Keeper then experimented with rhubarb extracts. And I looked at some correspondence and I found a letter from a military surgeon after the Battle of Culloden, where he had been treating the sick government troops (nobody treated the Highlanders). The doctors were treating them not just for their wounds but for illnesses. The extract of rhubarb was used as a purgative. And I read this letter, and I thought, ‘This is just amazing. I can’t believe what I’m reading’. So that sparked a poem and I sent it off to a magazine called Cencrastus, a very broad literary, political journal. I got a cheque for ten and six pence. And a little note from the publisher that said ‘You can now call yourself a professional writer’.
SRB: Can you talk a bit about the underlying themes in your new collection The Propriety of Weeding ?
CW: I became aware that I had a lot of poems about plants and gardens that needed to find a home. That’s one of the threads running through the collection. It’s not a themed collection by any manner of means. I’ve been involved with plants and gardens for a very long time and I was librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh for fourteen years. I’ve always loved gardens and I’m still involved in gardens, been trying to set up a community garden in Dunbar, where I live.
SRB: And you’ve written five books?
CW: This is the sixth. They’re all different. They show a progression in my ideas and in my skills as a writer. I feel that if you stop developing, you should just give up. You have to see weaknesses in your own work and try to correct them. And you also have to open yourself up to new ideas and new experiences.
That’s the way I approach putting a collection together. There are a couple of poems in here which reflect things I’ve never done in a book before.
SRB: In terms of topic matter?
CW: Topics and styles of writing. There’s one here called ‘Confessions’ which was written in the language of the street. I just enjoy picking up people’s voices onto paper. That’s a something I’ve never written about before, I may write more like that. The first line was suggested by something of WS Graham.
SRB: In one of your biographical blurbs you said you stopped writing for twenty years. Can you talk about that time?
CW: I was a bit of a Beat, I was a dropout in the early 60’s. But then in 1963 I got a proper job in a library and I got engaged to be married. There were so many things happening in my life that I didn’t really have time to do any more writing. And so from the 1960’s to the mid-eighties, I wrote nothing. I didn’t even think about it. Twenty years.
And then it came back through writing pastiches for Christmas parties at the office for the British Geological Survey. Suddenly I realised I could do this. And I’ve never stopped since then. It just flowed on.
SRB: Where do your best poems come from?
CW: I don’t know. That’s my honest answer. Like Norman MacCaig, a phrase will come into my head. And I just tend to see where it takes me. And I never know, when I start to write, what the final poem is going to be about. If it works, it’s great, it happens very quickly. MacCaig was my primary school teacher. He taught us sarcasm, and Scottish country dancing.
SRB: How old were you at the time?
CW: That was from the ages of 8-9 until 11-12. MacCaig was still quite young. His first mature poetry collection came out in 1955 and he was about 32. His approach to writing was very much the same as mine, or mine is the same as his. I love his deceptively naturalistic poetry because when you read it more deeply, you see how it was carefully put together.
SRB: I noticed that the last lines of your poems are quite significant – like a bang!
CW: They just come out that way. I don’t aim to do that.
SRB: Is it a conscious decision to use repetition sometimes?
CW: Yes very much. I like to use some of the traditional tricks of the trade: repetition, rule of three, because they work for other people so why not give them a try.
SRB: Do you work slowly and incrementally, the same poem hammered out over time?
CW: No. I work fast. The poem is usually finished quite soon after starting it. It may be a little more than ten minutes but not much more.
MacCaig used to say that he wrote a one-fag poem or a two fag poem. Well what I say I can write a poem in ten minutes plus fifty years. I need to have experienced it, I need to have lived.
SRB: I noticed you write a lot about the domestic and the exotic. Is that how you see your life?
CW: Oh yes, I am a domestic being and I’ve been happily married for 46 years. And my home life is very conventional and I like it like that. But I have an exotic imagination, and I can imagine other situations. There’s a thread in that book (The Floorshow at The Mad Yak Cafe) about relationships going bad and that’s not from experience – that’s purely from imagination. As I say, I’ve been married all that time.
SRB: Can you explain the title of your previous collection, The Floorshow at the Mad Yak Cafe?
CW: My wife and I were in Tibet in 2007. Our guide said I’ll take you out on a cultural evening. So we went to the place which was called the Mad Yak Cafe. After the meal a cabaret came on… and the dancers were the waiters and waitresses who had served the meal. They had dressed up in Tibetan costumes. And they started to sing and dance. And their singing was mimed to a very bad CD of Chinese music. They were not Tibetan, well a couple were, but the rest were Han Chinese. And it was so fake, it was just done for the tourists. When I left the evening and I said to her, that is the title of my next book!
SRB: Did you get altitude sickness while in Tibet?
CW: Yes… We were on the train. We went to nearly five and a half thousand metres. And they pump in extra oxygen on the train. But even then I had a headache and sore sinuses. What I did find difficult was walking up the steps to the Potala. I had to stop at every flight of steps. But that’s only about four thousand metres or so.
SRB: And to climb that in your mid-sixties is quite a feat.
CW: And I hit seventy this year.
SRB: That’s wonderful. How did you celebrate?
CW: Well it was actually two days after my mother’s death. My brother and I were there and we continued with the house clearing. We had a glass of wine and we allowed ourselves that time. I did intend to climb another Munro but I haven’t had the chance to do that.
SRB: What is like to lose a parent at your age?
CW: It was very strange. She was 92 when she died. And she’d been ill for the past two years I’d been caring for her. She lived a hundred miles from where I live. So I couldn’t be there all the time. But we arranged carers for her, they were terrific. And we both knew it was inevitable that she wasn’t going to last. But she loved life so much and had an active mind right to the last. We just jollied each other along, made jokes. I kept her amused and looked after her as well as I could. But it was… the way I feel about it now, every Sunday I used to phone her and we’d have a talk every Sunday. Now Sundays comes around and I’ve got nobody to phone and I miss that. But it was ok… she was ready to go.
With my father he wasn’t ready to go. It was 9/11. And he got very agitated watching the TV footage of the twin towers. Two days later he had a massive stroke and died. I wasn’t expecting that at all. He was 84. He was in good health. So… that one was a shock.
SRB: I’m sorry to hear that.
Would you like talk about the 1962 Writers Conference… did you witness MacDiarmid calling Trocchi ‘scum’…
CW: I did. The thing I first noticed was someone had switched the water carafes to whisky.
CW: Yes. And I didn’t know until this year that it had been Jim Haynes who had actually done it. So a very clear whisky went into the carafes. I think it was Sidney Goodsir Smith who first noticed it and then everybody drank. I heard Trocchi saying that he’d written everything significant in the last twenty years. I didn’t go all the way with Trocchi, although I think his internationalist approach was closer to mine than MacDiarmid’s, I don’t very often write in Scots but when I do, I tend to write in the way people speak. I like the Doric, from Aberdeenshire because that’s the way the people speak.
SRB: Do your use Scottish words in your everyday vocabulary?
CW: Yes I do. But I think in English, so I write in English.
SRB: Did you go to the Edinburgh Book Festival event on the 1962 conference?
CW: I did. I enjoyed it. I liked seeing John Calder and Jim Haynes again. I hadn’t met John Calder since 1962. I did know Jim Haynes quite well; I used to go into his shop. He would bring me coffee…you’ve never heard of that happening in a book shop anymore, the owner actually bringing you coffee! It was lovely, I really liked it. I bought a copy of New American poetry 1945 to 1960. And that started me off reading the important American poets… and I feel closer in affinity to a lot of American poetry than I do with Scottish poetry.
SRB: Can you say a bit more about that?
CW: A lot of them have that originality of thought that I like, and a direct form of communication which I liked as well. I used to like a lot of the original beat writers, and the beat poet that I admired was William Everson. He wrote under the name Brother Antoninus. He was knockout with the images. Again with an American idiom and an American voice. The idea that you can express a view of nature but you can still be who you are. I thought that was super. And I wanted to write like that.
SRB: Who else has influenced you?
CW: I have particular writers that I enjoy, people like Ruth Padel. She is one of my influences. And lots of other poets. I read lots of poets. I think you have to, as a writer. It keeps your own inspiration fresh. If you see other people out there who are interesting to read. And it makes you want to say interesting things yourself.
SRB: About Calder Wood Press… how long has the press been in business?
CW: It started about ten years ago. I was doing poem cards for the School of Poets, and I thought I could do some myself on my own work, so I put together some poem cards. And in those days you could get a hundred ISBN numbers for nothing. So I’m still working through that original block of 100. And it wasn’t until 2006 or around then that I had the idea I’d like to publish other people’s work. So it’s just grown from there. I love putting collections together.
SRB: How do you choose your poets?
CW: Well I go to a lot of readings. And I like to hear people read. I seek people out, I tend to do that. People do send me things, but I can’t cope with that.
SRB: What do you do?
CW: I tell them that I can’t accept unsolicited submissions. I got a letter from a very well known Scottish writer just a few weeks ago asking me to publish him. I had to say no. It’s just the way it is.
SRB: Are you funded by anyone?
CW: I subsidise the press from my pension because I love to do it. Love to get people’s work out there. I don’t get enough income from sales!
SRB: Which occupation has influenced you the most: poet, publisher, librarian?
CW: I would say it’s none of the above. It’s people. I love meeting people. I love interacting with people, listening to people, and that’s the main thing. I’ve always been influenced a lot by my scientific training, I’ve got a science degree and a Ph.D. in Information Science, that also affects my thinking… I tend to think in scientific terms quite a lot.
SRB: How do you feel about Scottish poetry at the moment. Are we getting more contemporary or are we turning around?
CW: There are many different poetries in Scotland right now. I’m heartened by the rise of popularity of performance poetry and slams although I could never do it myself.
SRB: Why not?
CW: I’ve drummed up the courage three times and been really embarrassed… it’s not me. But I love to hear performance poetry. I’m less keen on slams, because I don’t like the competition. In the corner here [of the bar] there’s a group from Craigmillar, which I’m about to start tutoring in creative writing. That’s great fun. In terms of books, economics are really hard now, we’re all going through it – even the big publishers. It’s unfortunate… a publisher like myself is dependent on mail order sales. They increased the postal charges and I have to absorb the extra costs. But that’s the way it goes.
SRB: Does writing poetry get easier when you get older?
CW: The actual business of writing on paper is the same as it always was. But the challenge is to be better than you were before. I’d like to set myself these challenges, to be absolutely economical with my words. My aim is to be as simple as possible.