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Pirene’s Fountain interviews
Alex Grant

With Oliver Lodge

Ceud Mìle Fàilte! A hundred thousand Pirene’s Fountain welcomes to Alex Grant!

In recent years, expatriate Scot Alex has been wowing poetry lovers in his adopted home state of North Carolina and far beyond. 

Alex has kindly agreed to a gentle interrogation by PF’s own token Scotsman, presumably in the vain hope that I will go easy on him considering our shared cultural roots. 

So we have frogmarched Alex to our special interview room deep in the bowels of PF towers.  The room is empty but for a small, unsteady table, two school-style plastic chairs, a large tape recorder, two crumpled paper cups and a packet of camel cigarettes.

Luckily for Alex, we are more interested in shining a light into his poetic soul rather than his eyes.  The tension is palpable.

Tell us a little about your childhood, your education and early influences.  How did emigrating from Scotland to the USA and North Carolina in particular affect you as a writer?

Appreciate the Camels! I grew up in Kirkcaldy, Fife, the first-born son of a policeman and a nurse. We were poor, but miserable nevertheless. I attended the same high school as Adam  Smith(Wealth of Nations) and Gordon Brown(former British Prime Minister), in the same academic hothouse program that Brown later described as “this ludicrous experiment on young lives.”

Within a few short years, I had parlayed this golden opportunity into a promising career as a shepherd-cum-cow-dung-shoveler – thereby validating Brown's opinion – at least in my case... 

My earliest poetic influence was Sid Smith, my first high-school English master – he introduced me to The War Poets – and to social liberalism – he is still one of my personal heroes - good old Sid!

The last part of your question is a little more difficult, since I only really started to write in earnest long after I left Scotland. I would say that the primary effect of living in America has been re-discovering poetry and finding a poetry community here – first in California, and more recently in North Carolina, with all of the influences that brings.      

Your first full length collection “Fear of Moving Water” is full of lyricism and musicality.  This seems very much in keeping with the Celtic tradition of poetry as an oral and aural art.  Do you feel that you draw on this “bardic” culture of performed poetry and music?

I feel I draw on my background, my culture and my childhood – as many poets do – and I think that Celtic background does bring with it a certain sensibility – we are all products, to some degree, of our environments – but I also think that this is a sensibility common to many poets, regardless of geography. I think that for me, this is partly innate and partly a function of the time and sub-culture I grew up through.      

Do you read much these days Alex?  Do you feel that what you are reading affects your writing?  Do you suffer from the dreaded doldrums, and if so. how do you rediscover the breeze of inspiration?

I do read (probably not as much as I should) – mostly poetry – though at certain times I've been drawn to writers like Marquez, Hesse and even Philip K. Dick. For me, I think that much of what I have read has affected my  writing over a long period of time – even if that just means recognizing what makes great writing great – it's a spur, but it doesn't necessarily have a direct or immediate effect on what I'm writing at any given time. A writer has to read, though – always.  

We all suffer from the doldrums.

As for inspiration, my mantra is Picasso's quote: “Inspiration exists – but he has to find us working when he comes.”

There is a very distinctive sense of humour on display in some of your work, “Argentina’s Huge Beaver Problem” for example.  Do you see any parallels between the performance poet and the stand-up comedian?  How much of a buzz do you get from the laughs of an appreciative audience?

This is a prickly one for some people(the people who frown on humor in poetry – who see it as some kind of easy out or cheap trick.) Humor, for me, is a necessary part of life – I can't imagine how I could get through it without it – and people(generally) appreciate it and warm to it. Humor and meaning are not mutually exclusive – in fact, I think that humor can sometimes allow you to say things that might otherwise come across as pompous, or churlish, or precious, or hectoring – dare I say po-faced?

I think that there should be a balance. In the end, poetry is not comedy – nor should it be – but I think that humor, if used well and in the right proportion, helps a reader or listener to empathize with the poem, or a collection of poems, or a reading of poems. At the risk of sounding obvious, it's a very human thing – and in the end, isn't that really what all poets are trying to do – to describe – in an original, interesting way -   some aspect of what it is to be human, in a way that is recognizable to whoever reads it?

I would not consider myself(and would never want to be considered) a  performance poet – although giving a public reading is a form of performance, and should be treated as such – albeit in a very measured way. I've always thought that theatricality and poetry don't really make for the best match – the poems can end up taking a back seat to the performance itself – and that's really not the object of the exercise.

If you're talking about flat-out performance poetry(i.e slam), I'd have to say that in my view, it is just that – performance – I don't personally consider it to be poetry. So sue me. I also don't see many parallels – stand-up comedians are(sometimes) funny. Performance poets rarely are – at least the ones I've heard. Apologies to performance poets everywhere.

I get a huge buzz from an appreciative audience – whether it's from  humor or from a more serious poem – it's a self-stoking thing – the more they respond, the better you read, the more they respond. It's one of the things that makes it all worthwhile – in all senses. 

Tell us a little about how your typical day pans out. Do you write every day?  Are you disciplined about your writing?

I don't write for a living – I have a day job, which has nothing whatsoever to do with poetry or the literary world. I've never been someone who writes every day – I tend to write in spurts – usually on retreat, alone – I need to be anonymous, free from distraction, and to have no other purpose other than to write. In recent years, I've done most of my writing in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia – there is no-one else around and I just immerse myself in the process of writing. I am very disciplined when I do this – I have no other purpose – though I'm not always successful – as any writer can attest to.   

Do you miss the old country at all?  You have mentioned your “Celtic fondness for excess”, a phenomenon with which all Scots and Irish are familiar.  Can you expand on your understanding of this?

Anything I do miss is probably coloured by nostalgia – though I do miss the lust for life of the Scottish people – that excess thing – and I do miss pubs and Scottish food - Lorne Sausage, Tottie scones, Ayrshire bacon, Forfar Bridies, Fish Suppers and Plain bread – that would all be on the one sandwich. Is that expanded enough?  I can tell I didn't eat dinner tonight...  

“Fear of Moving Water” is sprinkled with religious and mythical references and imagery.  Can you comment on why these themes interest you so much?

Probably for the same reason as anyone else who's interested in those things, I would guess – I'm trying to make sense of things that make no sense.

These ideas are pretty much universal and they've been around since we first came down from the trees – Douglas Adams probably pegged it best – “The answer is 42 – if you don't understand the answer, perhaps it's because you don't understand the question.” I'm not trying to be flip or glib here – I just think that's about how much we know, and that myth, ceremony and religion are just ways of trying to make sense of it all – but I think it's all still a mystery to most of us.    

Tell our readers a little about your recent book “The Circus Poems”. How does this collection differ from “Fear of Moving Water”?

I guess the main difference is that it is more obviously thematic – I wrote all of the poems based on the central allegorical theme of the circus - I think that for that reason, it's probably more cohesive than my other books.

It's also quite different stylistically – though it is, I suppose, a progression from my earlier writing – but Fear of Moving Water, for instance, was written over an eight-year period, while The Circus Poems was written in the two years following that – so I think it is much more condensed and focused because of that. It also makes greater use of fabulism, surrealism and allegory than my previous books, I would say.   

I also think that having Fear of Moving Water published allowed me to move in a different direction – it allowed me to basically begin all over again – and from a much different starting point – so the result was very different because of that.

I would say that The Circus Poems also cuts to the chase more than any of my previous books – the poems and themes are more concentrated and succinct – partly because of working from a theme and partly because I had more control over what I was writing. My publisher made me say that – though it may actually be true.    

You have garnered many prestigious awards and accolades in recent times Alex.  How important is the approbation of your peers and readers. Do you feel (like many) that you write primarily for your own gratification?

I think that if I was writing primarily for my own gratification, I wouldn't feel the need to send the poems or books out – that the act of writing would be enough(though it could be argued that seeking validation is in itself an act of gratification...)

I think that anyone who is serious about their writing wants other people to read it – and I think there are many different reasons for that. For myself, all I can say is that it matters to me that my work is read – I don't write for myself – writing is not catharsis for me – I write because I have been moved by great poems, and I think that great poetry is one of the most meaningful forms of communication – I believe it's on a par with any other form of human expression or creation. All poets are trying to write that great poem, and I'm a poet – so I make poems. 

It's nice to be recognized – but awards, accolades and even approbation are, in the end, actually meaningless – what really matters is whether or not the poems will stand the test of time – whether or not anyone will read them a hundred years from now – this is something I hope for for
my own poems. As Robert Frost said on his death-bed: “Was I any good?” Yes, Robert – you most certainly were – which is why you are still read today.  

You poetry is so lyrical and musical that we feel you must have musical influences. Is your work ever influenced directly or indirectly by music or indeed other art forms?

I am certainly a music-lover, and I think there's an obvious link between poetry and music – for me, the rhythm, the cadence and flow are key to a good poem - even if the poem is not overtly lyrical. I always read my poems aloud as I'm working on them, to try to identify anything that might be tripping it up or causing it to lose that flow. While I wouldn't say my work is directly influenced by music, this musicality is definitely an indirect commonality(rather than an influence per se.)

The same could probably be said for the imagistic aspect of my work – I would say that has a lot in common with(and is indirectly influenced by)   visual art – many of my more recent poems seem to have moved in that direction – of trying to bring the poem to life by painting a picture with words – so yes, I would say that influence also exists for me.     

A hoary old chestnut of a question Alex.  Where do you see yourself in 10 years?  What literary ambitions do you still have to achieve and how do you see yourself developing as a writer?

Where I would like to see myself in ten years and where I actually am by then will probably be wildly different things, if past experience is any indicator – I'll make a mental note to remember this question ten years from now! 

I've written three full-length collections over the past two years – I would obviously love to see those in print. I would hope by then to have written some new collections – and I would also hope that the poems continue to improve - I'm still aiming for that great poem. That's a lot of hope...

A major prize would be nice – not so much for the prize itself(though I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't matter to me) as for the exposure and readership that can bring. I also love to give readings and lead workshops, and hope that those opportunities continue to come along – and it would be nice to do some of these a little further afield than The Carolinas – which is where most of them happen right now. Being outside of academia can make this difficult – which is another reason why the exposure a prize can bring is important for me.   

I would have to say that the single most important thing for me is(and, I hope, will continue to be) that I am still writing – and writing well – ten years from now. The writing itself is what really sustains me, in the end.
I honestly can't imagine where I would be now without it – or rather,
I can imagine it, but am very thankful not to still be in the place I was before I found it. Whoops, what was I just saying about writing not being cathartic for me? 

The stanzas in many of your poems stand well on their own as short poems.  Given the theme of the current PF, can you give us your view of short form poetry, haiku etc. ?

Aha! Well, I can tell you that three of my favorite poets are Basho, Issa and Buson – the three great Haiku Masters. I think that truly great Haiku is extremely difficult to do – but when it's achieved, I'm always astonished by what can be conveyed in so few words – I think that all three of them achieved it, many times over – and I'm obviously not alone in this opinion.

I think it would be difficult for anyone writing Haiku today to achieve the impact and power that these poets and their poems did – in part because so much of what they wrote was rooted in the culture and ethic of their times, and these hold certain connotations which are in many ways inextricably linked to Haiku, for modern readers – and in part because they often seem to me to hold an additional poignancy, given that the poets, the subjects of their poems and the places and situations they wrote about are all so long gone. It's like looking at the past through an inverted telescope, and I think that lends the poems, great as they are, an additional layer and power.

I have been greatly influenced by these poets and by the Chinese, Japanese and Haiku ethics in general – I adore the compression, the brevity and the humanity conveyed by the simplicity and beauty of the language they used – this is something I have been moving more and more toward recently. I think it's quite astonishing that poems written hundreds of years ago still stand up, still instantly convey a place and time without seeming in any way archaic – because the themes are universal and timeless, and the poets who invoked them were so authentic in their writing.