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Keep an eye on…Michael McKimm

A feature in which we present an exciting new writer whom you should keep an eye on and ask them a few questions.

Michael McKimm

Questions by Dan Eltringham, poems copyright Michael McKimm.

The Literateur is delighted to present up-and-coming poet Michael McKimm.

Michael McKimm was born in Belfast in 1983 and grew up near the Giant’s Causeway. He graduated from the Warwick Writing Programme in 2004 and won an Eric Gregory Award in 2007. His poetry is most recently published in Dossier Journal (New York), Horizon Review, Magma, Oxford Poetry, PN Review, The Warwick Review, The Wolf and The Best of Irish Poetry 2010 (edited by Matthew Sweeney). He has read his work throughout the UK and Ireland, including at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, the Stanza Festival and the Solstice Festival in Co. Kerry. In November 2009 he was commissioned to write poems for the David Hockney/Frances Stark exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary art gallery.Still This Need, his first full-length collection, was published by Heaventree in 2009.

A poem and details on how to purchase the book are found here: www.michaelmckimm.co.uk

Your poems seem to me to be characterized by great tonal clarity and directness, making use of emphatic but not unsubtle rhythmical patterns. Do you feel a responsibility to communicate as directly as possible with the reader? Or to put it the other way, are you ever tempted by greater syntactical or semantic obscurity?

It is not really a case of temptation, as I have written many poems over the years that are very different in style and less direct than the ones in Still This Need. But those experiments usually yield less satisfactory results for me. In essence, it just doesn’t work (or, I should say, hasn’t worked, because anything can happen in the future). Since I started writing, my poetry has tended towards the direct, rhythmic style you describe, but I don’t think that was intentional, it is simply a way of writing that comes naturally to me. But I do believe in Robert Frost’s notion of poetry being as close to natural speech as possible, and also Auden’s idea of poetry as memorable speech. I think when poems veer too far away from that the emotional tug is lost, the beauty of the language is lost. No matter how much I’ve tried I have never really got on with what we might call, for the want of a better word, avant-garde poetry, and I think the forfeit of emotion is a part of that.

Many of your poems, such as ‘The History Lesson,’ explore tensions between personal and narrative or national histories, in ways that seem to me Yeatsian. How much would you say he has influenced your work?

I’m really pleased you spotted that. My first memory of Yeats is reading the poem ‘When You Are Old’ and loving it. It was perhaps my first encounter with a ‘grown-up’ poem. I loved the power of the words, the mystery of the relationship within it, but also the simplicity of the language, the sort of emphatic rhythms you mention above. This is all caught up in a period when I was studying Irish history at school – the period of Irish history that is discussed in ‘The History Lesson’ – and there is a definite link between reading that Yeats poem and learning about Yeats’ involvement (and lack of involvement) in that whole messy period of history. And learning about Maud Gonne, and it dawning on me that she was the love interest in ‘When You Are Old’, and loving the poem even more for knowing that. I very recently picked up one of those great Penguin paperbacks from the ‘60s which showed that the poem was actually Yeats’ version of a poem by Ronsard, so that has got me interested in the whole thing all over again. Yeats still fascinates me. His collected poems might satisfy, enthral, confuse and entertain me for the rest of my life. In fact, it excites me that there is so much of his work I have yet to read. ‘The Second Coming’ is a poem I often find myself reciting internally, trying to crack it, luxuriating in those opening lines – those lines crop up in various guises in Still This Need.

And, yes, Yeats’ balance between the personal and the political, his position as poet the observer and documenter, interests me. The poems in Still This Need that explore the political history of Northern Ireland spring from a perhaps natural inclination to write about the place where I grew up, but they also highlight, I hope, an awakening to that history retrospectively, that the violence was something I was lucky enough not to suffer directly. The poems I am currently working on explore that more acutely.

‘Fairhead’

She made her bedroom so it didn’t face
the other houses of the clachan, but instead
looked only at the place where the sky was a lung-tug
of gravity on the edge of the cliff,
a drop to boulders, granite-spikes, the channel of sea.
this was her retirement. No more the large house
she couldn’t heat, no more the stairs,
only the two rooms, the scuttle, the knick-knacks,
the breath of wind in the night and the day.
She’d go as she came, in a bed a foot from the soil,
in a cottage without running water, with the yelp
of the dogs in the field, the odd hovering falcon,
and every so often when the day was clear
the cliff-face and mountains of Scotland.

The exchange of a shell with a piece of basalt in ‘The Seagull’ seems to represent one of your poetry’s major concerns, with what you call in ‘The Granite State’ “mountains and landscape and lineage.” How much does a sense of place inform your poetry?

Place is of the utmost importance. It tends to be what gets me going. I came across the poet Kenneth White at Stanza Festival last year when he gave a fascinating talk about his theories of geo-poetics, that you ‘start with the local knowledge’ and work outward from there. He pretty much summed up my own beliefs about writing. Start with what’s under you feet, with the palpable feel of a place, the sensual – that for me is the poem’s grounding. A good grounding and the poem will quickly carry onwards from there. A poem in my book, ‘Fair Head’, is very solidly set in a place very well known to me, and I wanted to capture it as best I could – but the crux, so to speak, of what the poem is about ended up being something else entirely. Thinking about that place took me where I didn’t know I was going.

‘The Spot’

They’ve come to count the birds this winter morning,
stand twitchy in the kitchen as the light
comes slowly from the darkness, blue and low,
and the farmers return from the day’s first milk.
What unlikely prospectors of faith,
eight men and two women, thick wrapped
and high-booted, hair like downy leaf
under woollen caps, sipping tea and thinking
of what they might have failed to think about:
sea fog predicted for the afternoon,
Ordnance maps in cling film, squares of chamois,
the filaments in old flasks holding out;
of stonechats and linnets, shrikes and dunnocks,
of days spent in high barns and seeing nought,
the cleck of hens, the foxes bloody mouth.
They’re quiet of the need to see again
their favourite spots: a corncrake in the reeds,
lapwings dancing, cranes breeding on the broads,
and, for the old man, rubbing grit off a lens,
a great beaked red parrot, up in the tree,
as he swigged his canteen. They leave their mugs
and thank the farmer’s wife. She walks to the gate
and watches as they totter towards the fields,
eight men and two women, notebooks in hand,
backs arched forward in the January winds.

You write really well about birds, in particular the ornithologist’s obsession with naming them, and about the social moment in the mid Nineteenth Century in which an enthusiasm for amateur naturalism overtook the upper classes. Do you see a connection in terms of social types between the Victorian naturalist and the modern ornithologist, “fully-binoculared members of our private club.”?

I’m afraid it wasn’t so calculated as that, and I hadn’t thought about the social types of such people. The bird poems came from my own (very) amateur interest in birds and wildlife generally, which stems really from my rural upbringing followed very quickly by the last ten years in an urban environment, where nature became something I had to actively seek (nearly all of the poems I have written ‘about’ London are set in what local boroughs often optimistically term Green Spaces). Victorian naturalists are a more recent preoccupation, thrust upon me by my employment in the library of the Geological Society, where I discovered these fascinating Nineteenth-century characters. So no, I hadn’t made that connection between the two really. But now you mention it, that is very interesting, yes, the link between them. I really admire anyone who takes an amateur interest in anything (within reason). To be constantly fascinated by the world, to find inspiration in something and to do so without either coercion or reward, is a quality in the Victorian naturalists (who were also artists, medics, poets too) I like to see in people nowadays. So those are the sort of people I am interested in writing about.

Who of your contemporaries do you most respect, and do you see poetry as a combative business? Do you worry about the competition, in other words?

It’s difficult to answer the first part of the question without appearing biased, as many poets I admire are also good friends, but I will make an exception to mention Kei Miller as the poet I see as the big poet of my generation. Kei is unafraid and unashamed to insist that poetry be a thing of beauty and that it should possess the power to move readers to tears.

In answer to your second question, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t competitive, that I didn’t keep an eye on what other poets my age are doing and, whilst enjoying reading their work, sometimes can’t help thinking, I wish I had won that, or, I wish I could have a poem accepted there. That’s just human nature I think. Then I have to wise up and remember that it’s not a competition, it’s a world that it’s a privilege to be a part of, and there is no grand prize at the end. And other poets are compatriots rather than competitors. I find it good to take a step back from what’s happening in contemporary poetry every so often, to stop worrying about sending things out for publication. Only then can you get any writing done. The real pleasure exists in the very act of writing the poem.

Michael McKimm
London October 2009

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