Don Paterson was born in Dundee in 1963. His poetry has won many awards, including the Whitbread Poetry Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Costa Poetry Award, all three Forward Prizes and, on two occasions, the T S Eliot Prize. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2009. Until recently he was Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews (he is now Professor Emeritus), and was Poetry Editor at Picador Macmillan for twenty-five years. He also works as a jazz musician. Shortly after the launch of his memoir, Toy Fights: A Boyhood (Faber, 2023), he sat down with our Reviews Editor Isabelle Baafi to talk about the influence of music and play on his childhood and poetry.

Isabelle Baafi: While writing this memoir, what was it like to remember such distant events, especially your earliest years (at one point, you describe events from when you were just a year old)? Did you rely on the recollections of others a lot? Did you embellish quite a bit in some places? Were there any unexpected totems or madeleine-like objects that hurtled you back to a meaningful moment?

Don Paterson: I didn’t embellish at all, really. Possibly one or two stories had a few facts unconsciously altered to ‘align with a subjective emotional truth’, I guess, but no more. It’s been a surprise to me that some folk (mainly, I should say, members of the middle class to which I now belong) find certain details incredible. In terms of a madeleine, it was more of a repeatedly dunked Hobnob: I started the book in earnest when my father was dying of dementia four years ago. He used music as a form of information retrieval. Music seems to pay its line pretty deep into the hippocampus: he couldn’t remember my name, but he could remember what guitar he was playing in 1965. I found that if I could recall what the playlist was for year X, I could pretty much just wind the line back in, with all the barnacles, weed, shopping trolleys, deep-sea fish, and pelagic horrors still attached to it. In other words, all the stuff I was trying to forget. I ended up concluding that maybe one doesn’t really forget anything. You just bury it or misfile it.

IB: In the opening chapter ‘Pre Face’, you describe yourself as ‘some kind of determinist’, and state: ‘I don’t see any evidence of free will, which is mostly a happy retrospective illusion; we’ve learned the trick of taking immediate credit for decisions already unconsciously made.’ With that in mind, what single poem (whether encountered during childhood or during your early years as a poet) would you say has had the greatest impact on you as an individual? How has it consciously or unconsciously steered you throughout your life?

DP: I didn’t really encounter any poetry until my late teens, and even then, my engagement with it was pretty superficial. Poetry really started for me after Toy Fights ends, when I was maybe 21. Alas, there’s no touchstone poem that guided me, but certain poems and poets moved the dial. Tony Harrison’s Continuous elegies gave me the confidence to write in the first place, even if I rapidly lost interest in writing from ‘working class experience’. (I wish folk realised the extent to which ‘writing out of identity’ offers the establishment a grand opportunity to keep you in your box.) Reading Muldoon taught me about imaginative connection, Dickinson about how music and form generate logic. Frost taught me guile, about poetry as a manipulative art – something lost from the current scene, because we no longer agree on rules of our little word-game; that’s now made their creative subversion a logical impossibility. The poets of my generation were fortunate in having not only healthy competition but articulable yardsticks of success. I’d read something by Donaghy or Jamie or Armitage or Shapcott or O’Brien back then, and just think… shit, do I need to start working harder or what. I still sense those folk steering me, even now.

IB: The title Toy Fights comes from a childhood game in which you and your friends and neighbours would spontaneously engage in what you describe as ‘extreme violence without pretext’, which also had an apparently self-actualising function, since ‘getting completely fucked up is the only way you’re ever going to become yourself.’ It was many years later that you began to write creatively, but do you think your attraction to poetry partly stems from those bursts of violence? Did poetry’s inherent inclination toward unresolvable conflict appeal to you?

DP: Quite the opposite, really. Fucking yourself up might be a necessary artistic route; allowing others to fuck you up without your consent should be avoided at all costs. I think the violence made me broadly shy of unnecessary conflict. That still leaves a whole bunch of necessary conflict, though – and I suspect it was this I was ‘exploring’ in my early encounters with addiction, obsession, and mental illness. But I don’t think of poetry as a violent act, for all it might involve finding imaginative resolutions to things at apparent loggerheads, or the opening of deliberate ruptures where things are too casually or glibly connected. At the end of the day, it’s just a truth-telling.

IB: Your father was also a musician, and at one point in the memoir, you describe wanting to emulate your father’s voice while performing, but not being able to. When you were starting out, were there other poets whom you were heavily inspired by in some way?

DP: His guitar style, yeah, and only so I could take the mick out of it. I blew it. He was very magnanimous and told me not to take the piss until I could do it at least as well. By the time I could, I wasn’t inclined to take the piss. But I learned something about imitation. Also – because of the messy nature of influence, one’s imitations very rarely come out much like the imitated. Besides, your weird private genealogy – you know, the six or eight poets you consider your progenitors – won’t be anyone else’s, so influence is really a shortcut to originality. I spent a long time trying to abstract an algorithm to figure out how mine – Heaney, Bishop, Plath, Frost, Muldoon, Dickinson, Wilbur and so on – did what they did. That said, poets tend to only cite their more impressive influences, and always downplay the importance of their contemporaries. I could explain to you how some major voices in UK poetry were formed by their clever theft of, and considerable improvement upon, the voices of less talented coevals. I wouldn’t, obviously. But it’s always been this way.

IB: During the chapter where you recount your hospitalisation at age sixteen, you talk about ‘the myth of ourselves’; the identity that most people construct to paper over the ‘clean hole’ at their core, the absence of an objective self. You write: ‘what nearly all of us do […] is ignore the hole completely, and subscribe fully to the myth of ourselves. The reality will make itself known sooner or later.’ What is the myth of Don Paterson that you tell yourself and others?

DP: God. Terrifying question. My misfortune around mental illness meant I had the ‘advantage’ of having to construct a self at the age of sixteen completely from scratch, from available materials.
It was music, initially, that gave any emotional coherence. But the process allowed me to see it for the construct it is. The one I initially invented was a pretty good guy. He was just a musician, and for that reason when I just play music, I’m a nicer person. But that dude didn’t really survive contact with the world, with literary London, with some difficult individuals, and with the various ways testosterone plays out when you combine minor success and raging insecurity. I had to construct a different guy to deal with all that. He was less pleasant altogether: competitive, acquisitive, performatively masculine. I wouldn’t say I’d arrived at any late wisdom, but I have learned that – myths or not – we’re all of our previous selves. All of them, nested away like a Russian doll. (The last book of poems, The Arctic, just allowed all the previous DPs a crack at the keyboard if they fancied it, for better or worse.) The only myth is that there’s progress.
And the only moral goal is to know yourself, as it’s the only way that you can calculate for your own effect on others.

IB: Do you think the Scottish independence movement has had an impact on the poetry that has come out of Scotland in the past few decades, and do you think that will change now that the Supreme Court has said no to a second referendum and Nicola Sturgeon has resigned from the Scottish National Party?

DP: Got a year? I’ll try keep it brief, but up here poetry and politics are a bit closer together, as you imply. Yes, I think the independence movement had the effect of kicking the Scottish cringe into touch, which left the arts here a lot less ‘Scottish’, and a lot more confident, heterogeneous, international, and outward facing. I wish my English friends would realise that Labour are unionists first and socialists a very distant second. Up here, they will get into bed with Tories to prevent SNP majorities at council level. Understandably, no young poet in Scotland I know is currently inspired by the vision of Keir Starmer.

I should say the terms of Sturgeon’s leaving were a disaster, but she was politically isolated by the end and got very little good advice. My heart kind of breaks for her, because she really was a strong and gifted leader who guided the country through some awful times – the extent to which Sturgeon comforted and reassured my mum’s generation through the pandemic really can’t be understated. She also read books, and actively supported literature and poetry, which is so unusual these days. But while the SNP are in trouble, the union is still over; the vast majority of young folk and increasing numbers of English immigrants are pro- Yes, and they’re not changing. It’s just a matter of time. As for poetry – ours was a strong Scottish generation, and while we weren’t the Ulster poets, we were a fairly tough act to follow. But I was talking to Kathleen Jamie the other day and we both sense a real resurgence among the current young yins, and so much self-confident variousness. And I really don’t doubt that their commitment to ‘living in the early days of a better nation’ is part of that.

IB: What do you think about the poetry that is popular today? Are there any facets or styles that you find exciting? Troubling? Perplexing?

DP: Nah. I’m old. I demitted the Picador chair because I couldn’t read the scene properly. Mostly I find it either far too simplistic or totally perplexing, with little in the middle. Currently folk seem very relaxed about reading things I know for a fact they don’t understand.
I mean at all. I can’t believe some of the younger stars aren’t being called out on writing stuff that is not just ‘beyond the comprehension of most intelligent readers’, but which clearly doesn’t want to be comprehended in the first place; whether that’s down to having something to hide or nothing to say, we’ll never know. We’re falling back to the old BS about ‘the heresy of paraphrase’, which they’d know about if they knew any literary history, and hiding behind the fiction of unique identities as the justification for what are, in effect, private codes. Anyhoo. I have the luxury of having served my time at the poetry-face – ‘I did my best / But I guess my best wasn’t good enough’ – and I don’t have to keep up. I check in occasionally, and I see a lot of very old approaches touted as very new; as Valéry said a hundred years ago, ‘everything changes but the avant-garde’. I get excited when I see my former students do well. And even though I’m pretty sure I taught, say, Rachael Boast or Will Harris, nothing they found very useful, you’re damn right I’m still taking the credit. And I get excited when I stumble on a great new poem. Last one was probably Timothy Donnelly’s ‘Head of Orpheus’ in The New Yorker the other week.

I suppose the thing that troubles me most is the current disregard of ‘public taste’, of the kind that, yes, previously established Larkin as the nation’s favourite. But the taste of those who don’t write poetry and know nothing of ‘the scene’ has always been a pretty good way of telling us what people consider poetry for. They have a strong preference for stuff that ‘sounds like poetry’ and for people with some demonstrable talent for its composition, so it’s no surprise that hip-hop and spoken word are by far the more popular forms now. The page may be losing its way. However, AI might be about to fix that. Let’s just say it will prove some poetic strategies more easily imitable than others, especially the serial over the parallel. This is going to place some editors in difficult positions soon, when they’ll find that adducing, say, ‘authenticity’ as an intrinsic aesthetic virtue isn’t going to be sufficient to argue for a poem’s merit, when plausibly consistent voices – and even online biographies and histories – can be generated on the hoof.

IB: Considering the stage you are at in your life and career, how do you see yourself in relation to younger and newer poets? How do you hope to engage with them?

DP: It’s interesting. I’m going through what my elders went through, and the kids will go through themselves: alienation and confusion, mostly. But it’s important to ‘know who you are at every age’, to quote an old Cocteau Twins song that really shows my age, and to be fretting about the relevance of my work to younger poets when I’m pushing 60 would be pathetic. There’s such a thing as accumulated expertise, and the poets of my generation who’re still standing should relax into it. You just need to do what you do, try not to repeat yourself, and stay as alive to the world as you dare. Y’know – my elders knew a great deal more than me. About life, career, poetic technique, literature. I was fortunate to have the wit to realise it, and I milked them for all I possibly could. God knows, they had next to nothing to learn from me. Surely that’s how it should be? But certain members of my own generation have gaslit themselves into thinking the young currently possess some special wisdom, purely by virtue of their being fluent in a drastically different, largely online digital culture that we mostly aren’t. That’s a grave mistake. On the other side, I see some young folk keen to break entirely with the past for precisely the same reasons; the old appear to know nothing. But what’s important is that in times of great cultural change, we keep talking to each other, and that these conversations are actively facilitated. Otherwise we lose everything. It takes just one broken link between two generations to shatter the entire chain.

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Summer 2023

Issue 105

The Summer 2023 issue features three new poems from Jay Bernard, as well as new work by Ian Duhig, Meena Kandasamy, D. Nurkse, Yang Lian, Katharina Schultens, Victoria Chang, Pascale Petit, Declan Ryan, Sunnah Khan, Jamal Mehmood and lisa luxx, among many others. Translations include poems originally written in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Nepali & Spanish by Mahmoud Darwish, José Luis Díaz-Granados, Amir Or, Katharina Schultens and Avinash Shrestha. Elsewhere, Isabelle Baafi interviews Don Paterson, while our reviews section carries criticism by Dzifa Benson, Oluwaseun Olayiwola, Patrick Romero McCafferty and alice hiller.
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