'Poetry is a conversation, not a proclamation – it can’t happen in a vacuum': Elizabeth Rimmer
Elizabeth Rimmer is a Stirling-based poet, editor and occasional translator who has been widely published in magazines and online. She writes poems based in landscape and community, and is also influenced by her experience of growing and using herbs, producing a modern translation of the Old English Charm of Nine Herbs in 2017. She talks to Neil Leadbeater about her kind of poetic language – “spare and concise, concrete and sensuous”, about what poetry can do, geopoetics, and her strong feelings about the “snobbery and exclusivity” of some poetry reviewers.
Let’s start at the beginning. Please tell us something about your background and how you first became inspired to write poetry.
I have always wanted to be a writer, but at first, I was interested in plays and novels, then later, influenced by Tolkien, fantasy writing. I found that poetry and song came into fantasy stories quite a lot, in the form of spells, prophecies, ballads and so on, and as I was also interested in folk music, I wrote songs and poems influenced by the Scottish ‘muckle sangs’ Scott and Yeats [Scots ballads], and the Irish rebel tradition. Though I wasn’t very good as a folksinger, I can still feel the influence of teenage me when I write. At university, I studied Old English and Old Norse poetry, and came across the Metaphysical poets and the Romantics – especially Keats, and Clare, which extended my range somewhat - and later again, the Psalms and the work of Kenneth White, which introduced me to Japanese and Chinese poetry. It was when I first read Kenneth White’s The Bird Path I first thought I might be able to write poetry that would be worth sharing with other people.
What do you see as being the role of a poet and what does poetry mean to you?
I like poetic language to be spare and concise, concrete and sensuous, and I especially value the ability poetry has to explore philosophical themes in a less dry and abstract way than more academic disciplines. I like the way poetry can combine intense and accurate observation of the sensory world with thought and emotion, how it can embody reflection and ground it in the material world on one hand, and also make connections with culture and politics and spirituality on the other. I think this might be the role of a poet – to move across disciplines of art and thinking, provoke thought and encourage dialogue. I see the world (human and non-human) as essentially a network of conversations and communications between beings - not all of it verbal! - and it is my task as a poet to listen, and to help other people to hear.
When you write your poems, where do your ideas come from?
Sometimes it’s the Biblical ‘With my harp I will resolve my problem’ (Ps 49:4) – a way of reflecting on something that bothers me. Sometimes it’s conveying an awareness, of a landscape, the weather, a plant I’m looking at, the behaviour of birds or the river. Often, I start with a phrase or an image that has occurred to me that makes a connection between two areas of experience, like archaeology and personal memories, or a craft like sewing and politics. I tend to find it easier to work within a range of subjects I’m thinking about – not so dedicated as ‘a theme’, but an overall idea that has enticing avenues. Home and belonging was in my mind when I wrote my first book, and herbs provided the framework for my last book, though I did wander into many other related areas as the concept grew.
What would you say are the main influences on your poetry and how do they manifest themselves in your work?
This is hard to say, not because I don’t have influences, but because my style was formed when I was much younger, and then there was a long gap, so when I started again, I wasn’t so conscious of other influences. TS Eliot, certainly, Thomas Merton (I like the ‘mystical made concrete’ elements in them). Seamus Heaney’s musicality was a key element when I started to write again 15 years ago, and Kathleen Jamie’s gentle ruminative style. Kenneth White was very influential for a while, but is less so now – I like more ‘finish’, more emotion, and more metaphor in my work these days. At the moment I’m really impressed by Moya Cannon, Kei Miller and younger writers like Seán Hewitt and Rebecca Tamás.
In 2016 you were chosen to be the Makar for the Federation of Writers (Scotland) and you edited their anthology Landfall. How would you define the role of the makar and what was the most rewarding experience for you during that time?
All the federation makars are different, and have played widely differing roles. Compared with those who offered workshops, created anthologies or composite pieces of work, I feel I didn’t do much, but one thing I did, and still do, is to turn up for events and support members, who are often having their first experience of reading. My big thing – and the one which still reverberates today - was to write a blog-piece called It’s not poetry until we tell you it is in which I protested about the snobbery and exclusivity of some reviewers who perceive themselves to be a poetry establishment, and encourage Scottish poets to disregard cliques and fashions, and dare to write, without letting questions of ‘qualification’ (social or academic) deter them from aspiring to write something of artistic excellence. It was a bit naive, but a lot of people took heart from it, and it did result in many wonderful off-piste and original creative responses to the competition that year.
I note that you are a council member of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. Please tell us something about this organisation and your role in it.
I’m no longer a member of the council, but geopoetics still forms a large part of my poetry practice. The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics was formed in 1995 by people who had a strong interest in the work of Kenneth White. It seems pretty much of its time now - late 60s, all counterculture, Eastern philosophy and getting back to the land – and initially had more success in Europe where his wide-ranging intellectual approach was more familiar. Lately it has had a resurgence of interest, as his earth-centred aesthetic, and cross-disciplinary approach (rejecting the separation of arts and sciences) makes it very applicable to artists concerned with climate change, loss of biodiversity and the wide cultural changes necessary to tackle these issues. Membership does not include only writers but also artists, musicians, sculptors, filmmakers, archaeologists, ethnologists and conservationists. There is an on-line journal called Stravaig, where you can see current work from members.
Do you think there is a strong poetic movement in Scotland at the moment and, if so, how would you define it?
Scottish poetry isn’t so much a movement as a hydra, sprouting new heads every minute and rampaging in all directions, and I love it. Spoken word is particularly strong just now, which I’m pleased to see, though my work is very different. Writing in Scots, Gaelic and Shetlandic is becoming more prominent too, which is wonderful to see. There are new small presses launching, though the pandemic is making it harder for them to keep going, and the whole thing seems a bit less of a guerrilla movement than it was when I first started publishing, and more of a solidly based cultural enterprise. I don’t think Scottish poets feel quite the same need to be published in England in order to be taken seriously any more.
What collections have you had published to date and what are you working on at present?
I’ve had three full collections published by Red Squirrel Press – Wherever We Live Now in 2011, The Territory of Rain in 2015, and Haggards in 2018. I’m currently working on a fourth which is called Burnedthumb at the moment (but it might change), which is about the many kinds of knowledge and connection we deploy in order to recognise ourselves as ‘human’ or ‘a person’. So there’s a lot about the fragmentary memories we carry from childhood, family history, connections with place and landscape, the work we do, the myths we believe about ourselves.
How are you coping with lockdown?
I did very well at first, becoming more focused and able to work with greater concentration and less stress. Now I’m finding it much harder, as I miss the buzz and feedback of being with other poets. Other family members have struggled a bit more, too, as time has gone on, and I have had more caring responsibilities as a result.
What lessons have you learned from writing poetry? Do you have any piece of advice to pass on to other aspiring poets?
When I really got into writing poetry for its own sake, I began to feel I had found my niche in life. I use mental skills that didn’t seem to bear fruit elsewhere to make my poems, and this helps me to connect to other skills, like editing, making mistakes and correcting them, sustaining concentration over the whole length of a project, taking – and rejecting - criticism. I learned that if you find what you’re good at, and learn to do it well, you become much less anxious, less eager to please and more willing to make an active contribution where you are. If I had to give one piece of advice to aspiring poets (apart from read widely, which goes without saying) it would be to subject your writing to the opinions of other poets. Go to a writers’ group. Submit to magazines. Find a mentor, or go on a course. Poetry is a conversation, not a proclamation – it can’t happen in a vacuum.