Interview A Northern Habitat: Robin Fulton Macpherson in conversation with Mariela Griffor

Interview with Robin Fulton Macpherson by Mariela Griffor

Arran-born poet and translator Robin Fulton has spent much of his life in Norway, and has been active in the translation of Scandinavian poets into English. Robin Fulton Macpherson was born in Arran in 1937, attended primary school in Arran and Glasgow and secondary school in Golspie, Sutherland. He attained an MA in 1959 and PhD in 1972 from Edinburgh University. From 1969 to 1971 he held the Writers’ Fellowship, also at Edinburgh University. He was senior lecturer at Stavanger University in Norway from 1973 to 2006. His Selected Poems (1980) gathered work from five earlier volumes and was followed by two further collections (1982, 1990). Marick Press, Michigan, has brought out A Northern Habitat: Collected Poems 1960-2010.He edited Lines Review and the associated books from 1967-1976; Selected Poems by Iain Crichton Smith (1983); The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Garioch (1983) and revised Robert Garioch’s Collected Poems (2004), and A Garioch Miscellany (1986).His essays were published in Contemporary Scottish Poetry (1974) and The Way the Words are Taken (1989). Book-length selections in translation include Sekunden överlever stenen, translated into Swedish by Johannes Edfelt, Lasse Söderberg & Tomas Tranströmer (Ellerströms, Lund, 1996); Grenzflug, translated into German by Margitt Lehbert (Edition Rugerup, Hörby, 2008) and Poemas, translated into Spanish by Circe Maia (Rebeca Line Editoras, Montevideo, 2013. He has translated a goodly number of Scandinavian poets, such as Tomas Tranströmer from Sweden (most recent edition 2011), and Olav H Hauge from Norway (most recent edition 2011). See also Four Swedish Poets (White Pine Press, 1990) and Five Swedish Poets (Norvik Press, Norwich, 1997). His most recent translations are from the Swedish of Harry Martinson (Bloodaxe, 2010, Bernard Shaw Translation Prize) and Kjell Espmark (Marick Press, Michigan, 2011 and 2012).

Please click here to read poems from Robin Fulton Macpherson’s A Northern Habitat

Mariela Griffor: You grew up in Scotland but have spent the last forty years in Stavanger, Norway. How did that come about? Were there family connections with Norway?

Robin Fulton Macpherson: None at all. When people ask me why I came here and stayed I´m not sure if I can give convincing reasons. «I meant to stay here for two years and got stuck» elicits «So you like the place,» which in turns elicits «No, I hated it for many years.» So let´s get rid of this biographical bit at the start. Briefly  –  In 1973, after nine years of school teaching, two years holding the Writer´s Fellowship at Edinburgh University, a fresh Ph.D. in late medieval Scottish Literature and History, and two years of unemployment, I found that potential employers, especially of the academic sort, saw me as having too enigmatic a shape to fit whatever slots they had available. Unemployment has its inconveniences, and I felt obliged to take the first job I was eventually offered, at what was then a District College in Stavanger.

I was to used English as the teaching language and was expected to teach subjects of which I was ignorant (e.g. English for students of economics, and an outline history of the U.S.A.). This was a bad career move  –  but I suspected I didn´t really have a career and as the years passed I realised that a job which left me energy and time to write is not something to moan about, not loudly at least. In due course the District College turned itself into a University (not perhaps a very convincing one) and it was clear that promotion within the system was something for non-enigmatic natives. My last couple of decades there saw me teaching rather elementary courses in translation and in nineteenth and twentieth century British History for first and second years students. It has never been part of my job to teach literature and I´m not sure if I´d have wanted to do so. I handed in my office keys in December 2006, five months short of my seventieth birthday.

MG: Every year you take time off to go into some sort of vacation or trip. Do you do this often or is it only during the summer time? Do you get inspiration to write poetry in these trips?

RFM: Apart from two or three sabbatical periods spent in York – we´ve spent so much time in York we feel it must be a kind of second home  –  summer holidays have seen us joining the milling crowds. We have driven around much of Northern Europe, within a range which «seasoned travellers» might regard as rather narrow. For various reasons we avoid flying. As for «inspiration,» simply getting out of one´s usual round can throw fresh light on some dark corner of the brain where an idea might be waiting for attention. Poems thought-up on the move must touch on the same concerns as poems written at home.

MG: As a Scotsman immersed in the translation of Scandinavian literature, can you say which English and Scandinavian writers you admire?

RFM: «Admiration» can imply a certain distance, or lack of deep personal response. In that sense I could say I admire Shakespeare´s use of English but I have no great interest in theatre (nor in opera or other large-scale pubic events).

And «admiration» varies from time to time. When I was young(ish) I thought I admired Paradise Lost  but when I became acquainted with La Divina Commedia my view of Milton clouded over a bit. Milton´s language is of course resounding and captivating but much less varied than Dante´s Tuscan, and Milton made the huge mistake of introducing the Trinity as characters, Christ appearing as a sycophantic son behaving obsequiously to the Managing Director (=God). Dante went to pains to keep God where He belongs, beyond our comprehension.

Rather than «admiration,» I prefer the idea of returning to various works decade after decade, finding something new in them. In this respect I have to mention Dante again, though my ability to read his Tuscan unaided stumbles somewhat. Chaucer and the late medieval Scottish poets concerned me a lot in the late 1960s into the 1970s: I´m curious about my response if and when I return to them now. I´m sure there are still discoveries waiting for me in Robert Henryson. As a student I found that my eyesight wasn´t happy with voluminous reading of novels so I concentrated on the main English-language poets. This was not a good idea with regard to fulfilling syllabus demands  but I think I developed a reasonable total view and can find my way about. I have no particular «favourites.» When it comes to «non-favourites» among the big names, I could mention Robert Burns, Ezra Pound and Hugh MacDiarmid, which means I am probably weighed and found wanting.

Scottish poets active in the second half of the twentieth century form a special group because I knew many of them personally and I edited some of their work for magazines and books. I am now watching how my responses to the older generation are altering. Many thought it was our duty to admire everything MacDiarmid said and wrote: what I found off-putting were his self-promotion and the antics of those around him. Many found it hard not to admire Sorley Maclean, which was fair enough in its way, but a proper appreciation of his achievement relies on a proper knowledge of Gaelic. Norman McCaig was very popular with audiences and I now feel that he was at his best when not so intent on immediate listeners. Edwin Morgan was more widely popular, inventive and optimistic right into a very old age, but I have to confess to finding it difficult to locate, or sense, his real obsessions. There is no doubting the real obsessions in the work of Iain Crichton Smith and I can return to him whenever I want, even if wishing he had been less impulsive and hasty. Of the poets writing in varieties or variations of Scots it is Robert Garioch who keeps my admiration. He was a skillful verse craftsman who combined an intimate knowledge of Scottish history with a full awareness of the events of twentieth century Europe.

Throwing a glance over the Atlantic, at the older American poets, I dip into Wallace Stevens now and then, without disappointment. At one period I read everything written by John Berryman and Robert Lowell but am not at all sure if I’ll repeat the experiment.

Then you ask about Scandinavia. I´m afraid there are great holes in my knowledge here. In the 1970s (perhaps) I worked through both Ibsen and Strindberg, but haven´t yet revisited them. I have translated poems by Bo Carpelan (Finnish-Swedish) and Henrik Nordbrandt (Danish) but otherwise my knowledge of Finnish and Danish literature is a disgraceful blank. After much effort I managed to produce what I still feel are reasonable translations of Olav H Hauge, but he is the only Norwegian poet to whom I have been able to respond closely.

If my knowledge of various literatures falls far short of professorial standards the reason is that for most of my adult life I have been more engrossed in music, literary interests then being marginal and fragmentary. It´s a matter of what has the greater impact on me. For example,  the symphonies of Sibelius, from the third to the seventh, affect me more than almost anything from Scandinavia which I have merely «read.» I hope this doesn´t raise disappointed eyebrows on the Swedish poets whom I have spent much time translating  –  we can return to them later.

MG: You are from Arran. How has the geography and language of Scotland influenced your writing?

RFM: I´m not sure if they have. But of course some readers might see, or think they see, more than I can. Most people feel they have a strong connection to the landscapes in which they grew up and my own sense of belonging to Scottish Highland landscapes is of course intense.

A «sense of belonging», however, is an elusive concept, especially since it seems to change as the years pass. The «other» country becomes very familiar but will always (at least in my case) remain «other,» while «one´s own» country keeps changing with the times in one´s absence. Some of my poems, not surprisingly, nibble or nag at the resultant feeling of unease.

I was born on Arran, where my father was a Church of Scotland (i.e. Presbyterian) minister, and spent my first seven years there. The island is off the south-west coast but in spite of its Lowland latitude its history and landscape have been more Highland than Lowland. Before the war was over we moved to Clarkston, a suburb on the southern outskirts of Glasgow, and then after three and half years moved again, this time up to Helmsdale, a fishing village on the east coast of Sutherland. The reasons for these moves were never given to me and I still don´t know what they might have been.

As for language, my father´s people were from the Borders and seemed to have a fair amount of Scots vocabulary but maybe didn’t use it much. My mother´s people were from Sutherland and Caithness and must have had Gaelic at least up to my grandfather´s time, but he didn’t use it. The English we used in the Highlands was easily distinguished from the English used by people in the Lowlands; among older people, there was ghost of Gaelic behind it.  At school in Sutherland, Lowland Scots , which we came across mainly in the poems of Burns, felt almost like a foreign language and I never developed any kinship with it.

MG: Can you tell us a bit about your family and how the writing interest was born?

RFM: In the early 1930s, in Edinburgh, father took an Honours degree in French and mother took one in French and German. Father went on to train as a minister and mother taught for two years in Helmsdale. As far as I could see, their interest in French and German ended there, as if their studies had become detached from the rest of their lives.

They never read anything in either French or German.

Father laboured over the elegant periods of his sermons, which were duly admired. As was clear from her letters, mother could turn out a good sentence. But «literature» was something else. I had no special interest in writing until my student days were almost over. In my last year I showed  samples to one of my tutors, hoping for advice, but he was snooty and remarked that I must have been reading too much T.S.Eliot. When in due course I started having poems published in papers and magazines, I strongly suspect that my parents regarded this as a reprehensible form of exhibitionism.

I have no idea where or when or how a «writing interest» was born. In my boyhood, as was not unusual, my interests were perhaps like those of a budding scientist. In my youth, music took over. My four years as a student were split fifty-fifty between Edinburgh and Helmsdale and in Edinburgh I had no access to a piano. Maybe I began writing as a kind of substitute, but it must have been rather a meagre and silent one.

MG: How is your writing process?

RFM: When I come across a poem which catches my interest, i.e. which asks me to return to it later, I can´t say I feel any curiosity about the struggles the poet may have had. Some poems enter the world more or less intact, while others require much huffing and head-scratching, but it´s only the finished product that matters. Academic careers may well be enhanced now and then by hours spent in hushed libraries staring at the scribbles of deceased poets, but how often are the results actually useful to readers? My own hours of staring at the rough drafts left or donated by various poets roused in me the rather sullen and  unsubtle conclusion that second thoughts are sometimes better than first thoughts, and sometimes not.

I think there´s a good case for poets getting rid of all early drafts and messy first versions. Librarians wouldn´t like this, of course: they are so neutral, but I suppose they have to be. In the 1960s a flattering librarian in Edinburgh prised out of me a notebook with pencil jottings, an episode I regret.

I have tried several times to persuade his successors that the notebook is a waste of space and ought to be recycled, but they are adamant, as if they were sitting on a national treasure.

I can´t imagine that there could be anything about my way of writing poems that would be of interest to others. I have an impression that when a poem starts it does so almost surreptitiously, in some corner of the brain I´m not looking at just then. Perhaps I have to be quick and careful to catch it without squashing it before it can scuttle back into a crack.

I spend very little time with pencil and paper, preferring to piece together poems in my head. I don´t talk about poems-in-progress, not even to myself, for that would scare the perhaps-poem away. I don´t feel much inclined to talk about my poems when they´re finished, for by then they´re off on their own. (Some may, on reflection, turn out to be duds, but that´s another matter.) If I think about it, I see my poems as reaching readers rather than listening audiences.

Once «finished» or «ready», my poems have a way of disappearing from me. I simply forget them. I can´t quote a single one from memory. I´ve even seen poems of my own in print without recognizing them.

Perhaps this means I´m not really a poet, or a poet only incidentally and occasionally. But we could wonder how we define a poet  –  is a poet a poet only when he or she is actually putting together a poem, while behaving normally, i.e. not being a poet, the rest of the time? If I let a few weeks go by without setting together words into some shape I find satisfactory, I start to feel restless. I don´t twitch, or start behaving in a bizarre manner in public, but I do feel I might be neglecting something.

MG: How is your translation process?

RFM:  I have never worked as a professional translator, not being qualified to do so, and not wanting to do so either.

The only language I learned within educational walls was Latin, up to «First Ordinary» at Edinburgh. I even taught Latin at a posh school, starting the day with it five days a week for several years. (Crossing Edinburgh by Corporatoin bus was a bad start to any day, but a dull hour of elementary Latin was therapeutic.)

I´m familiar with Norwegian after forty years in the country, though my use of it is not as fault-free as it ought to be. My knowledge of other languages is of the reading kind, i.e. patchy, but I am much taken by vocabulary and etymology and gammar in different languages. My reading knowledge of Swedish is reasonable, after much reading, but I have to be wary of gaps. My interest in different languages is closely related to, or a part of, my interest in how words work in poetry. I read quite a lot of non-English poets, but only in parallel text editions, where I can see, as far as I can, what is going on. Recent examples include Homer Aridjis, Sarah Kirsch and Jean Fallon.

I started to learn Swedish just because I liked the sound of it. Then I met some poets and I tried to translate their poems. I was very rash and my first published efforts were ruined by howlers. But if I hadn´t jumped in, perhaps I would have got nowhere. I had no Grand Plan to introduce Swedish poets to the English-speaking world. I simply picked out poems which I fancied and which looked as if they might work tolerably in English. And so a long-term and gradual process had begun, almost by accident. I never translated much at a time, but in the course of several decades some of piles of paper became big enough for books. Eventually, various editions of «complete» Tomas Tranströmer were published, and substantial selections of Werner Aspenström, Kjell Espmark, Harry Martinson, Lennart Sjogren, and Östen Sjöstrand. Shorter selections appeared of Lars Gustafsson, Gunnar Harding, Eva Ström, Staffan Söderblom, and others. The Martinson volume was the only one done »to order,» at one go. The rest grew piece by piece. Ventures into prose included a volume of short stories, Stig Dagerman´s German Autumn and Pär Lagerkvist´s Guest of Reality.

Putting a complicated matter very briefly, my approach to the translation of poetry has been that, while there is a place in the universe for adaptations and imitations, the word «translation» ought to be kept for attempts to be as faithful as possible to both the letter and the spirit of the original.

That´s utopian, which is why I feel so ambivalent about poetry translation and why every now and then I wish I had never started, and I try to stop, but then, since there´s an element of obsession or addiction about the activity, something catches my attention and I begin to poke at it and I´m off again.

The poets I have translated have been helpful with explanations and information. One or two failed to point out howlers when they must have known they were there. The most satisfactory cooperaton I´ve experiencd has been with Kjell Espmark: we´ve been translating his poems, on and off, for about forty years, aiming at a faithful representation of his Swedish combined with an English readability. Here and there we have observed the roles of poet and of translator overlapping or even temporarily merging in subtle ways.

MG: Did you ever want to write fiction?

RFM: In my twenties I wanted to write short stories but my experience of life was too limited. I read the short stories of many masters, especially of Chekhov. At one period I had learned enough Russian to make my way through Chekhov´s own words, and after that any English version I looked at seemed tasteless, like whisky vandalized by an excess of water.

MG: You have a tremendously exquisite sense of humor that I enjoyed after each correspondence. What role does humour play in your writing?

RFM: My poems aren´t hilarious and aren´t meant to be, of course. Jokey verse has often lost its charm before the ink has dried. But as for being serious, there are different sorts.

The boring sort, incurious and grinding slowly from A to B like a wheel on a rail, leads us nowhere. But the other sort, constructive and liberating and imaginative, has within it an essential element of playfulness, whether the play is with words or shapes or sounds or ideas. We lose something important if we lose the infant´s curiosity, the capacity to try things out, even if it just means turning an object upsides down to see what happens. I´d like to think that the right sort of radar can detect a playfulness somewhere beneath my poems.

MG: In «Anxieties of an Insider» in your 1971 collection you use the second person pronoun: was that a reference to an individual, your culture or your language?

RFM: This poem was written in the spring of 1970 and was occasioned by a long, chilly, damp day visiting a small Buddhist monastery somewhere in the south-west of Scotland. I see the poem now from the outside, at a great distance, as if someone else has written it, and can only guess about what was / is going on. It seems that the speaker in the poem is perhaps the temple itself, or more likely someone who feels secure, or wants to feels secure, in an inside that appears to replicate the outside but in an idealized form. The «you» is me, the outsider who intrudes, bringing in unwelcome and threatening questions. The «bandage» in the last line is ambiguous, suggesting both damage and healing, but whose damage and/or healing is an open question.

The poem was a response to a particular occasion and

I doubt if I intended any wider reference to culture or language, and it was not intended as any sort of comment on Buddhism as such. There is a discomfort in my earlier poems which causes me discomfort now, so I don´t look at them unless I have to. A generalized anxiety, sometimes taking the form of a sense of entrapment, seems to lurk behind many of my earlier poems, and I can understand why some reviewers of my efforts complained that I was too «clinical.» Whatever was bothering me, in a subterranean way, appears to have eased off in the course of the 1970s: «The Change,» written early in 1973, suggests the start of such a process.

MG: In «The Spaces between the Stones» there is a metaphorical reference to men in yellow helmets. Can you explain what that means?

RFM: I suspect this was literal rather than metaphorical. I wrote this poem sequence in 1969, mostly in Edinburgh University Library in George Square, or at least in what was left of George Square after the university had knocked down half of it. On the way there one day I watched men demolishing another old bit of Edinburgh, and their helmets just happened to be yellow.

MG: Are you a religious man? Can you develop a bit on the reference to Uppsala Cathedral («The Cold Musician» Part 2)? I lived in that city for almost 14 years so I´m very curious as to how that poem came to be part of the book.

RFM: In the spring of 1970, just about to reach the ripe age of 33, I went abroad for the first time, and heard foreign languages around me for the first time. I made the journey by train from Edinburgh to Stockholm and back. I gave talks at the Universities of Uppsala and Göteborg, where I took care to talk slowly, thinking I was speaking to Swedes, only to find out afterwards that most of my listeners were American post-graduates. Their interest in how religious views affected the way in which late medieval people saw the universe was less than mine. A while later, someone sent me a postcard showing Uppsala cathedral on a clear winter afternoon, so that went into the poem, along with the figure of Luonnotar, from the Kalevala, subject of  the well-known tone-poem Sibelius wrote in 1913. «The Cold Musician» is a rather miserable little sequence about coldness, but at least the cold doesn’t have the last word.

I like wandering around cathedrals, York Minster being the one I´m most familiar with, and I see them as more living than the ecclesiastical relics of Philip Larkin´s «Church Going.» How the masons of the Gothic structures made tons of stone appear to weigh almost nothing has often been explained but we still can´t quite believe what we see.

When the great cathedrals of Northern Europe were being built, there were of course mistakes and disasters  –  but modern buildings also fall down now and then. Apart from their beauty, such buildings also give us mixed messages: their purpose was the glorification of God, we assume, but they were also products of human pride. Humble piety alone never rose such towering edifices: they needed gross ambition, stubborn effort sustained over not just decades but centuries, and money on a truly grand scale. We may think of Dean Jocelyn, in William Golding´s 1964 novel The Spire, driven by his obsession beyond any rational accountability. The remarkable, real-life Abbot Suger, responsible for the reconstruction of Saint-Denis, on the north side of Paris, knew what he wanted, tirelessly, and achieved it. He aimed to glorify both God and France and its Kings; the opening celebration in June 1144 was a very grand PR occasion, not least for the Abbot.

Am I a religious person? That depends on what you mean by «religious.» You´d have to spend a lot of words explaining that, and then I´d have to spend even more words answering you, and we might finish up with a labyrinthine and probably banal book of little use to people setting out to read my poems. The briefest answer I can give would be that since my teens I´ve been engrossed, sometimes perplexed but always fascinated, by the basic tenets of Christianity as they have come down to us through the generations. They have reached us by a bewildering variety of routes, some through dubious-looking shadows, some through innocent-looking sunlight. They have been misappropriated by an endless series of cranks, swindlers and despots. We have to look at them with clear and sceptical eyes, but at least they have reached us and will survive us. Just as the Church was seemingly founded on a rock that was split, so the matter of Christianity is contained in a small number of texts which appeared to survive by chance. The four Gospels (plus the extra fragments that were lost then found) were written, like most «historical» and religious works through the ages, with polemical aims in mind, and they have been relentlessly glared at and interpreted and misinterpreted for close on two thousand years. I find them enigmatic, disturbing, and often marked by teasing lacunae and things not said.

Whether these rather general remarks can be seen to have much direct bearing on my poems, I  can´t say. Some of my early poems, mostly by now confined to oblivion, had specific Christian references, but I soon realised that these had no poetical function and I dropped them. If there was any kind of turning-point it can possibly be seen in «In Memoriam Antonius Bock,» a set of thirteen poems which I wrote in the winter of 1972-73. (Block is the Knight in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal.) I wasn´t sure at the time, and am not sure now, how I managed to write it, but I feel certain that I would not want to consign it to oblivion. One of the ideas behind the set is that if we want certainty about first and last things, we can´t expect to find it, so we have to accept that uncertainty and doubt are essential aspects of faith. This is leading us into abstractions, which I don´t care for because they drag us away from the specific nature of the poems.

MG: Thank you for your time Robin Fulton Macpherson. It is always a pleasure to be able to share time with you!


Please click here to read poems from Robin Fulton Macpherson’s A Northern Habitat


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