Magi Gibson

Issue sevenISSUE SEVEN CONTRIBUTORIssue seven interviews

Written by:

Views: 303

Interviewed by Samuel Elliott.

About the poet:

Magi Gibson has held three Scottish Arts Council Creative Writing Fellowships and one Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellowship with the University of Paisley. She was the first Makar (Poet Laureate) of the City of Stirling in 500 years. She was Writer in Residence with the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow and Reader in Residence with Glasgow Women’s Library from 2012 – 2015, where she ran many creative writing workshops and hosted poets from India, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Jamaica and Palestine. She is a patron of the Federation of Writers Scotland. She founded and ran with a small cooperative, literary performance events, DiScomBoBuLaTe, Shambolic, and currently Word Jazzology.

AboutWashing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks collection:

A woman sunbathing on a demolition site in Bridgeton. Two women in a punch up in Glasgow’s West End. A young mother breast-feeding in an art gallery. A working man stepping off a tenement roof on a snowy morning. City streets. Country lanes. A letter to Sappho. A ticking off for Nietszche. Not to mention Hugh MacDiarmid’s dirty socks. Or that poem with the intriguing title, ‘V****A’.

INTERVIEWER

The Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Sockscollection balances poems that are imbued with humour and others that depict some of the darkest forms of existence, often only a page away from each other, such as with ‘V….A’and ‘African slave girl in Glasgow’-how do you go about finding the balance for the collection? Was that at the forefront of your mind when assembling Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks?

 MAGI

Finding the balance for this collection was tricky, especially because it does span such extremes. But isn’t that a reflection of human life? We can be strolling along on a beautiful sunny day, turn a corner and there’s someone homeless begging. Of course, it works both ways. We can be stuck in grief, when a stranger’s kindness lifts us.

            The start of the collection with such a left-field poem was deliberate. It’s saying to the reader, if this voice, challenging and witty, and yes, at times, rude, is not for you, this is your trigger warning. If you’re up for the challenge, read on.

            African Slave Girl in Glasgow and V….A might not seem related, but looked at from another angle, thematically they’re not far apart. They’re both about ways women are negatively controlled and confined by society, and have to kick and fight against those sometimes obvious, sometimes invisible strictures to gain their freedom.

            Overall, when putting the narrative of the collection together I’m looking at how poems ‘lean’ on each other. Sometimes they will be complementing, at other times they provide a contrast, to break a mood and ricochet the collection in an unexpected direction.

I don’t want the reader to feel comfortable. The poetry collection’s not a duvet to wrap the reader up, or a soother. Though there are individual poems the reader might find comforting.

 

INTERVIEWER

With poems centring around subject matter that is naturally confronting such as infant mortality with ‘under the silken sky‘ did you find any subject to be taboo or too confronting? Do you think that intense and confronting poems can resonate and stay with the reader?

MAGI

I don’t move towards the subject, it comes to me. It’s not like I have a list and I think, oh, I’ll write on this issue or that. The poem is a visceral reaction, a living creative impulse, it rises up in lines of poetry that land on the page and develop, then I apply my intellect to shape them into a more crafted poem.

            I am very aware of cultural sensibilities, so I do think deeply about that aspect.  I would always be very careful with the angle I write from. If I’m not getting it right, I’ll throw the poem out. I try to write from the emotional truth of my own experience even when the specifics of the poem lie somewhat outside my personal experience. For example, in ‘under the silken sky’, I was tapping into the fact that I’m a mother who has given birth to daughters. I saw a photo of the mother whose newborn daughter the father had murdered. I read the details of how he’d done it and why. He stood behind her, and she was sitting, looking the other way, and the poem came.

            If I do have an intention when writing a poem, or perhaps that should be an aspiration, a hope, it would be that the poem will resonate. That at some future point, an image or phrase, will suddenly return to the reader and hold meaning for them, perhaps even in some way I couldn’t have imagined.

 INTERVIEWER

Following on from that, I suspect that many of the poems such as ‘that night’ and ‘my mother’s funeral’ might be about your own family and your own mother. They carry the raw emotional power of personal experience anyway. If they are, how did the writing of some of the most deeply personal poems affect you while penning them? Was it traumatising, or cathartic? Was it a form of grieving?

MAGI

Yes. The reader of the poem is being invited to share an intense personal moment, which if the poem works well, transcends to the universal. ‘That night’ is a mother/daughter poem; the matrilineal line and how that bond runs through us and is a real and physical thing as well as metaphysical.

            ‘My Mother’s Funeral’ I wanted to write as, I think, a memorial. A love poem almost. What happened, the blackbird singing, really did happen just as her coffin was lowered. It was perfect and transcendental. I knew immediately I wanted to create a poem around that blackbird’s offering but I was so scared I might mess it up I waited 6 years. The writing, once I got the rhythm for the first line, was a beautiful experience. It was like a wave I simply had to ride to the end of the poem and not mess up. I read it on national radio in Scotland and they had people phoning in; one woman had to pull her car over because she was in tears. That’s when you know you’ve transcended from the personal to the universal. So yes, a grieving, and a giving, and a moment of saying, Thank you, mum.

 INTERVIEWER

Can poetry heal as well as hurt? Are they often one and the same? Would you recommend it as a form of coping with grief? What pitfalls does one face when writing such poems? Can it undo the work of acceptance afforded by the passage of time?

MAGI

Sometimes a poem needs to be provocative to prod people out of their complacency. Sometimes poetry needs to go on the attack, but it should never attack the innocent. There’s an amazing poem called Rape Joke by Patricia Lockwood. The poem, though upsetting in many ways has been hugely healing for many women around the world.  But my God it hurts! It hurts rapists.

            I write poems about the world I see around me. I’m not going to sugar coat it. Those who would like racism to continue, sexism to continue, they would love it if we all turned a blind eye and scattered glitter and wrote poems with rainbows in. That rainbow might represent pollution. There’s no point in romanticising that in poetry. But I do write about love too. And humanity.

 

INTERVIEWER

There’s also light to be found throughout the darkness. In ‘metaphoric‘ you consider what your father might think of your success and socialising within the lofty heights of the scene. Overall it is an upbeat poem. Does that mirror your own thoughts? Do we all, or can we all, reach such a place with our passed on loved ones? Is their influence undying like their spirit in our craft and forever redefining it?

MAGI

My mother and father had very hard lives. My father lived through two world wars and fought in the second one. He was born into crushing poverty in an immigrant family and was often unemployed as a young man, cycling over a hundred miles at one point with no food to find work in one of Scotland’s highland hydro-electric dams. I was brought up in relative poverty though my parents were wonderful and worked hard to protect me from it. I adored my father. But he was struck down by Alzheimer’s before I could ever tell him. He never knew I wrote poetry or became an internationally published writer. This is a thank you to him. A desire to share with him, because he was inspirational to me.

 

INTERVIEWER

In works like ‘my father dreaming’you thread in present reality with his past, a large portion of his working life. Is this from your imagination, or was it largely influenced with stories he told you? How much do you think the stories our parents tell us shape our lifelong imagination? Is storytelling the greatest form of immortality?

MAGI

Oh, my father did work on the high tenement roofs in the poem! Or if not those exact ones, then ones nearby. That was the starting point. When I was a young teen, and my dad had his own small business by then as a slater and plasterer, if we were driving around the west coast of Scotland or near Glasgow he’d point to roofs and say, I slated those in 1937 or in 1956 or whatever.  He fell off roofs when I was a child too and was badly injured twice, but hardly off work at all. We couldn’t afford it. And I remember my mother binding up his fingers so he could work when they had deep nasty cuts, or what we called ‘hacks’ in them. I think memories and stories we’re told by the family become fused and take on their own shapes. I don’t know about immortality! But I do think stories down the generations are wonderful. Deep truth and factual truth don’t always correspond.

 INTERVIEWER

Beyond poems that are deeply familiarly focused, the collection is contrasted throughout  with works inspired by fish, fishing and lakes, such as ‘the art of fishing’, ‘strange fish’, among others. What is it about fish and bodies of water that captures your imagination so? Or is it much less literal than that?

MAGI

Oh, it’s much less literal! I’d go so far to say that in my poetry a fish is never a fish! The preponderance of water? Probably a mix of metaphor and geo-poetics. Scotland’s a small country surrounded on three sides by the sea, with many lochs and rivers, thanks to the mountains and the huge amounts of rain we get as clouds sweep in from the Atlantic and burst over us. We’re often the first landfall they reach after the east coast of Canada or America. I’ve mostly lived in central Scotland and the distance between the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth, is so small you feel could almost span it with your thumb and forefinger. So water is never far away, though mostly it’s falling from the sky. Water is also an element associated with the female, just as the moon controls the tides, so it controls the female menstrual cycle. There are so many ways as a woman I feel affinity with water. But when I’m writing, I don’t think of any of that. If it comes into a poem, it’s subconscious.

            The affinity with fish? I’ve always felt like I’ve never quite fitted, never been at ease, though I’m not the ‘strange fish’ in the poem. But not fitting in isn’t so unusual for a girl or woman trying to fit into a patriarchal society. My childhood and adolescence were littered with examples of doors closed to me, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes not, because of my sex.

            But water also represents the subconscious, deep thought, so I’m playing with those ideas too. How far down are you prepared to dive?

 

INTERVIEWER

Many, if not most, of these poems in Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socksare distinctly Scottish. What do you think has made them appeal to and resonate with international readers so much?

MAGI

I simply write in my own voice, out of my own geography and culture. I think that’s what poets do. Presumably that appeals in the same way I love reading a Caribbean or an Indian writer. It’s the authenticity of the voice that matters. And I love all the different rhythms, usages and musics. It may all be “English” but subtle and not so subtle differences are fascinating.

 INTERVIEWER

In ‘the boy with the gun’you end with aiming your pen and firing. Is that what poetry is to you? Is the pen and/or poetry mightier than the sword and can and will it prevail over the use of guns in the end?

MAGI

It’s one of the reasons I write poetry. But only, of course, a part of the picture. My first poetry collection was called ‘Kicking Back’, and sad to say so many issues I was angry about back then are still with us today. By trying to shine a light on a subject from a different angle as I attempt to do in ‘the boy with the gun’, then maybe one or two people might shift their thinking. And even if that’s just a little, that’s something. As a poet and writer I have to continue to hope that education and humanity will prevail over ignorance and violence.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a set process for writing a poem? Are you a creature of habit? Or do you pen one when the inspiration strikes? Did your process change over the course of assembling Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks?

MAGI

I have no real set process. Though I do always use a notebook. Sometimes a pen, occasionally pencil. Lots of notebooks! Lines can play in my head for a long time before I settle to write. I’m an awful procrastinator. Sometimes I wonder if my subconscious is actually doing a lot of the work while I’m fretting that I’m not writing. It’s not unusual for me to write a first draft quickly. The poem will need ‘fixing’, but at least it will be more or less there in terms of content and structure.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you edit your poems, or do you disagree with editing poems?

MAGI

Oh I edit! My first drafts are skeletons. Everything tends to be there, but they’re poor wee Raggedy Anns compared to the final draft. Mostly they start off as skinny waifs who need fattened, but occasionally they’re rather plump over-dressed ladies who need trimmed down and severe wardrobe modifications. I have now mixed so many metaphors in this response it’s fizzing like a crazy cocktail.

INTERVIEWER

What was your earliest memory of writing a poem?

MAGI

I don’t remember writing a poem at all before I was 16, when we were asked to write a contribution for the school magazine. My education was very uninspiring. We were working class kids very much taught to stay in our place, and though I was academic, I was never encouraged to dream. Our goals were to aim for professions that would raise us out of poverty. There was no time for frills. Poetry was a frill. It took me decades to recover from that. Like the experiment with the flies kept in a jar. Even once the lid was taken off the flies still didn’t fly out of the jar. They no longer understood they could escape. Coming from the background I did, with the education I got, it took a long time before I realised I could fly out into the world of poetry.

 INTERVIEWER

What’s the toughest part of being a poet?

MAGI

For me? Lack of self-belief. That comes, for me, from my working class background, the feeling I’ve no right to be doing this, doubled up with being a woman. When I was first writing in the late 80s and in the 1990s women poets were still having a very tough time breaking into poetry journals and anthologies. Even poets like Sharon Olds were getting work turned down on the basis they’d be better submitting to “Ladies’ Journals”.

INTERVIEWER

Who are some of your influences? Have they changed over the years? If you could meet your idols, would you want to?

 MAGI

Initially, some of the major Scottish poets of the mid to late twentieth century influenced me, but with the notable exception of Liz Lochhead, the others, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan, Iain Crichton Smith, Tom Leonard were male. So I started looking further afield, first to the Americas, where Maya Angelou was accessible and inspiring, then I discovered Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Margaret Atwood. But one of my earliest biggest influences was Polish poet, Anna Swir, a contemporary of some of the Scottish greats, yet we had no female equivalent in Scotland, and there she was in a misogynistic country writing about women’s lives and women’s sexuality, writing their untold stories, their joys and pains in such a beautiful, pared-back style. I have met all the Scottish poets I mentioned, and Adrienne Rich. But Anna Swir is the poet I’d like to meet. Simply to say, thank you.  

 INTERVIEWER

What are you currently working on?

MAGI

My next collection. One poem at a time!