Robin Robertson is a poet whose work is infused with classical myth and folklore. The gods and prophets who inhabit his poems are shape-shifting and transformational figures, such as Dionysus or Proteus. His visceral and sometimes violent verse displays a carefully controlled rhythm and musicality. Alongside the vivid pictures of humans in thrall to the power of landscape and nature there is an – often unacknowledged – humour. In a poem concerning a heart operation a nurse announces ‘there will be pain’ as she closes the ward curtain, and ‘The Tweed’ is about giving a back-rub to Hugh MacDiarmid. Anyone who has heard Robertson read will know that it can be a bracing and occasionally frightening experience. It is a voice not suited to the cushioned enclaves of many poetry readings but to the boom and echo of a cathedral
Robertson was born in 1955 in Scone, Perthshire, and grew up in the north-east of Scotland. His father was a minister in the Church of Scotland. Before releasing his own poetry Robertson worked for various London-based publishing houses. In this role he brought a great many Scottish writers – such as Alan Warner, A.L. Kennedy and Irvine Welsh – to the attention of the wider world. In 1997 he published A Painted Field, his first book of poetry, and Slow Air followed in 2002. The title of his next collection, Swithering (2006), wasmost apt for a poet who is concerned with ‘flux’ and metamorphosis. That year also saw the publication of The Deleted World, his versions of poems by Tomas Tranströmer, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His translation work continued with new editions of Euripides’ plays: Medea (2008) and Bacchae (2013). His two most recent poetry collections are The Wrecking Light (2010) and Hill of Doors (2013).
Robertson’s selected poems, Sailing the Forest, appeared in October 2014 and allows the reader to grasp the breadth of form in his poetry and the recurring themes, such as the implacable yet changing force of the natural world and the chaos and fluidity of experience. With this latter preoccupation in mind, it seemed only appropriate that Robin Robertson was on the road when he agreed to answer a few long-distance questions from Nick Major on – amongst other things – Dionysus, Tomas Tranströmer and the art of translation.
SRB: Was poetry part of your life as you were growing up in Aberdeen, or was it something you found and kept returning to?
Robin Robertson: I was a solitary boy who spent a lot of time on his own: walking, listening to music and always reading. Poetry was there, certainly, but fiction, folksong and myth were probably stronger interests.
Your father was a minister in the church. Did you ever think of following him in that life?
I didn’t, and I was agnostic from a very early age, but I shared his moral curiosity and took Philosophy in my first year [at university]. As a boy I would sit in the pews listening to my father preach; he was a fine speaker and a very liberal Presbyterian but in the end all I took from it was a sense of the power of the spoken word: the cadence, not the creed.
At the start of ‘Beside Loch Iffrin’, about a cursed man, you write: ‘The year was broken before it began.’ Your poems often seem to emerge on a broken or desolate world. ‘Wire’, about the Mexican-American borderlands, for instance, opens on a ‘bled landscape’.
I was brought up in a liminal world, on the north-east coast, and have always been interested in borders – ‘drawn to edges’ – where there always seems to be friction and instability and change: all useful for what I’m trying to do. I like flux, but don’t care too much for utter desolation – particularly the West Texas version, which is desolation with fences.
There are a few lines in ‘Strindberg in Skovlyst’ I particularly like: ‘In my head, when the gales are running wild, I steer towards catastrophe, then write about it’. Although these are Strindberg’s thoughts, do you see poetry as a way to give form and control to that wild and catastrophic side of our lives?
Poor Strindberg: suffering my attentions post mortem. I admire him as a painter and writer, but it’s his life that’s the real entertainment: such energy to make such a shambles. And if that wasn’t enough, he now has me feeding him lines like these. He’s become a useful mouthpiece, over the years, for some mad or disagreeable thoughts and theories, including this one. It’s a version of what Berryman says in his Paris Review interview about an artist being extremely lucky to be ‘presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.’
Does the form of a poem emerge as you are writing it?
Everything emerges as I write it. As I uncap my pen I usually only have a few words or phrases, but they are active: already beginning to adhere to whatever my current preoccupations might be. The poem is an accretion from that point, but form only declares itself to me towards the end of the process, usually emerging out of the sonic structuring.
What are the origins of the epigraph to your selected poems, which appears as the epigraph in Swithering, and which features in A Painted Field: ‘The flowers of the forest they ask it of me, How many strawberries grow in the salt sea? And I answered to them with a tear in my eye, How many dark ships sail the forest’.
These are lines taken from a favourite folk song of mine ‘The False Bride’. ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, of course, is another beauty, on another subject altogether.
How does an individual poetry collection form for you? Is it simply a matter of poems accumulating over a number of years until you have enough?
The poems tend to cohere around whatever is holding my interest during that period. The order and shape of a collection are important, and once the book settles into its true form it’s then easy to see what should stay and what’s redundant.
How did you first discover Tomas Tranströmer’s work?
I remember buying up a shelf’s worth of books in the Penguin Modern European Poets series, which were being remaindered, and working my way through them. I was very taken by people like Akhmatova, Cavafy, Celan, Montale and Trakl, I think, but certainly Tranströmer – who seemed closest to me in landscape and sensibility, perhaps.
And what made you want to translate his poetry?
One summer, many years later, I was on an island off the west coast of Sweden hoping to enjoy a fortnight of sailing and swimming. It rained for two weeks, and the only book in the cottage was Tomas’s collected, Samlade Dikter, 1954-1996, so for each day of rain I worked on a new English version of one of the poems – helped by my bilingual partner, Karin Altenberg.
Reading The Deleted World, I was struck by some of the affinities between your poetry and Tranströmer’s. You both seem to grapple with and transcribe the elemental, and you both write of people who are at the whim of natural forces. I’m thinking of his poem ‘A Winter Night’ or your poem ‘Corryvreckan’, for instance.
There is, I think, a shared sense of awe at the implacable power of the natural world, and also the world of the machine, and nervousness about the fragility of the human in the face of both. Living in the Baltic during the Soviet era, he also had acute political anxieties – ones that happily didn’t trouble me. I only knew Tomas in his last decade – visiting him and his wife, Monica, in Södermalm and Runmarö – but this was after his stroke of course, so communication was complicated. At least he approved of my English versions, though, and sharing a stage with him in London, Stockholm and Toronto was a great honour.
You’ve also translated Euripides’ Medea and Bacchae. Can you talk about the art of translation, and in particular, how you control your own poetic voice whilst inhabiting someone else’s?
There are different types, or degrees, of translation. The free English versions of Tranströmer allowed me some lexical flexibility as I was looking for fidelity of tone rather than a straight, literal transcription from Swedish into English. With the two plays by Euripides, the brief was to provide accurate modern texts for reading and performance. Needless to say, I wouldn’t attempt to translate any text unless I’d already heard some answering call from the work.
What drew you to Euripides?
The plays of Euripides have a bleak and powerful modernity, despite their pantheon of gods and their great age. He had a forensic psychological eye, and could dramatise the most intricate moral nuances and emotional tangles; his plays make it that human beings haven’t really changed much in two and a half thousand years.
You once described yourself as ‘a friend of Dionysus’, and even putting the Bacchae to one side, the Greek god is very prevalent in your work. What makes Dionysus such good company?
I’m not sure Dionysus has friends, but I’d want to be there in a corner, in my maenad gear, raising my wine-skin in his direction. I certainly wouldn’t care to be his enemy. Whatever our relationship, though, I’d say he’d be no better company than a thunderstorm. To me, he is the most interesting Greek god: Protean, shadowy, always noir, always other. He cannot be named, defined or contained and that liquid ambivalence and ambiguity is striking. I’m attracted to the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses for similar reasons.
In ‘The God Who Disappears’ you write that Dionysus is ‘born to a life of dying’ and that he is a ‘Ghost of abandon, and abandoning,/ he shatters us to make us whole’. Does Dionysus show us that however much we like to think we are in control of our lives, we are always subject to an uncontrollable destruction and rebirth?
Dionysus is destruction and rebirth. He is the only Classical god that dies. He is the god of many things – theatre, dance, wine, ekstasis – but also the god of transience: of vegetation and natural cycles. He is both the volatile Greek trickster – an Anansi, a Coyote, a Loki – but he is also the son of a mortal mother and a divine father, which may sound familiar: a god, murdered and resurrected.
To return to one of your beginnings, how has the publishing industry changed since you started in the business?
It used to be great fun, and now it’s not.