I first met John Glenday in person while walking a portion of the Great Glen Way from Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit, Scotland in 2012. We had only a single mutual friend and poetry in common as way of introduction. After walking the fourteen miles along the gorse-studded trail, above the Loch Ness, I arrived to the Glenday household where John and his wife, Erika, had already prepared a sign that captured their lovely and playful hospitality: Quiet--American Poet Sleeping. What followed were several days of lively and thoughtful conversation about poetry, place and our political landscapes. One of the many things that intrigued me in our conversation was the different sense of inhabiting land. I have long thought about the way in which particular geography and language intersect. John Glenday, as you will see, thinks seriously about this intersection without allowing it to limit his poetic range.
John Glenday was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1952. He is the author of three books of poems, the most recent, Grain (Picador, 2009) which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for both the Ted Hughes Award and Griffin International Poetry Prize. His second collection, Undark, was also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His first book, The Apple Ghost, won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award in 1989. He was appointed Scottish/Canadian Exchange Fellow for 1990-91, based at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. He lives with his lovely wife, Erika, and their children in Drumnadrochit in the Scottish Highlands.
LG: To begin with a rather wide-ranging question: What kind of connection do you see between place and poetry? Could you talk a bit about the link between your home geography and language? Has the knowledge of your family residing in the same area for over 800 years had any impact on your writing?
JG: Poetry holds on to a place in the same way a plant does – it takes nourishment from the land it was rooted in – what else can keep a poem alive? But when I talk about place, it is irrespective of time. So for me the poem is also an archaeological examination – it digs down among the post-holes and potsherds and grave goods for evidence of how life was once lived. What else is poetry about? The fact that my name has been associated with the Scottish county of Angus for generations and generations accentuates this for me. It tells me that whatever I write casts a long shadow. But I am not territorial in my writing, so I’ve happily adopted Scottish Islands, mythology, non-existent places. They’re all grist to the mill. One of my earliest poems ‘The Apple Ghost’ is a simple description of a house in Nairn, Scotland, as I saw it at the time. The narrative of the poem was inherent in that house. All I needed to do was write it down.
The Apple Ghost
A musty smell of dampness filled the room
Where wrinkled green and yellow apples lay
On folded pages from an August newspaper.
‘My husband brought them in, you understand,
Only a week or two before he died.
He never had much truck with waste, and
I can’t bring myself to throw them out.
He passed away so soon…’
I understood then how the wonky kitchen door,
And the old Austin, settling upon its
Softened tyres in the wooden shed,
Were paying homage to the absence of his quiet hands.
In the late afternoon, I opened
Shallow cupboards where the sunlight leaned on
Shelf over shelf of apples, weightless with decay.
Beneath them, sheets of faded wallpaper
Showed ponies, prancing through a summer field.
This must have been the only daughter’s room
Before she left for good.
I did not sleep well.
The old woman told me over breakfast
How the boards were sprung in that upper hall;
But I knew I had heard his footsteps in the night,
As he dragged his wasted body to the attic room
Where the angles of the roof slide through the walls,
And the fruit lay blighted by his helpless gaze.
I knew besides, that, had I crossed to the window
On the rug of moonlight,
I would have seen him down in the frosted garden,
Trying to hang the fruit back on the tree.
From The Apple Ghost (Peterloo Poets, 1989)
LG: You’ve talked to me about place as being connected to person and certainly, many of your poems seem to address a person or sentient being even as the poems are rooted largely in some kind of place. Give us a sense of your own—and maybe the European—nexus of place and person. Perhaps, you could also talk about names? Given that Scotland is a country associated with clan names and places like Loch Ness (which you live near), do you think there is a special sheen in names and naming in your own work or that of other Scottish poets?
JG: I’m not sure, Lea. Names are such slippery things – remember what Paul Valery said: ‘to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.’ Names can come between us and the world, they can delude us into categorizing instead of appreciating. But they also change me, I believe, from an innocent bystander into a material witness. They do this by forcing me to look in an analytical way rather than simply to see. It is essential, as an artist of any kind, to look in a penetrating manner at the world; to question it by observing it. Most names cast long shadows too – Mine comes from a small glen in Angus which in Gaelic means ‘the Glen of the fast flowing water’. So I can trek up into the hills and look down on my surname. I do this in the poem ‘Glendye’ of course. There’s not much there now – sheep fanks, heather and gorse, a thread of water. I like to imagine they are in me too. I also have the same name as my father, which I viewed as a blessing, and then a curse, and then a blessing.
by that flinch in the Water of Dye
where its wersh soul swithers
through the Bog of Luchray
and on towards the Dee,
there runs a certain gentleness
of ragged stonework in an old sheep fank,
where a flush of broom pushes out;
and if you happened to lie in its doubtful lee,
come early spring, you might just hear
the wind clambering through, fluting
a note or two from a threadbare melody,
for nothing but its own sake.
--From Grain (Picador, 2009)
LG: In your book, Undark, you have a series of poems about the U.S. Civil War. Could you talk about the genesis of these poems. I believe they come out of photographs? Talk about the process of writing about place and subjects that aren’t “your own” and yet, are so much your own. “Artillery Horses Under Fire” seems a poem that you are intimately connected with or at least, you’ve rendered it as such.
JG: All the Civil War poems are shamelessly appropriated from Shelby Foote’s brilliant book, or form Whitman’s ‘Specimen Days’. I’m not worried by this. After all, you can usually tell from the title what a poem is not about. All the detail of the world – the terrible events, the pointless waste of lives, the bravery and self-sacrifice are all just ways in which the world is telling us how we work. The world is always doing that. The poet’s duty is to appropriate fact and fiction for the benefit of poetry. So in the poem you mention, it was the way the artillery horses would stand firm in harness while they were being shot that troubled me; and then I remembered how Union soldiers, advancing into gunfire over open ground, would turn up their collars and hunch their shoulders, as if they were advancing through rain, rather than lead. It is this tiny detail of the world that tells us a little of the big workings of things. If we can focus on detail and describe that, we can say more about the horror than any mere accumulation of statistics can do. So, in summary, these are not poems that try to be ‘American’, they are poems trying to talk about people, and how they live. The world will carry on giving us the clues – remember what happened to the glass negatives taken by Brady and others during the Civil War? Remember this, along with the Crimea, was the first war documented in photography. Those glass plates were sold to nurserymen after the war – the people were sick of images of the killing, they had no stomach for them. Can you imagine greenhouses glazed with the inverted images of the dead? What is that saying to us about us?
4. Artillery Horses Under Fire
That slap the minie balls make when they strike
sickens the heart. Sounds just like pebbles
smacking into mud.
Mostly they fall straight off, then struggle
up again, shivering and stiff, but strangely
quiet till the next round comes.
Some simply twitch their flanks or slash
their tails across the wound , staring ahead.
You’d think it was a blowfly at them,
nothing more. I remember at Cold Harbor we watched
as the last from a team of six stood firm
in harness with five bullets in her side.
She toppled only when the sixth ball sheared
through bone. Not one was spooked, nor ran;
but then, the living were left limbered
to the dead. We could hear the rebels cheer
as horse after horse dropped through its traces,
kicking the caisson sides.
They hardly make no sound—that’s what I hate.
Die as they must, God damn them.
I don’t know. Some beasts act more like men.
--From “Whitman's War" in Undark (Peterloo Poets, 1995)