Alex MacDonald, Eric Gregory Award-winning poet and co-editor at poetry journal Poems in Which, will be running our Spring 2017 course Give It To ‘Em Straight. We caught up with him for a short chat about the course, and what he’s up to at the moment.
Your upcoming course with us is called ‘Give It To ‘Em Straight’. Could you tell us a little more about what you mean by giving it to them ‘straight’?
The idea came when I read Eileen Myles’s poem ‘On the Death of Robert Lowell’. I loved how direct she was in addressing her subject and her language; the reader is left in doubt about her feelings and the tone of those opening and closing lines were unlike anything I had read in poetry. But it was familiar, too, as language I or friends might use. I thought this was a good tension: ‘straight’ talking making language – and our experience of it – strange. When I started to think about it, a lot of writers I liked had this quality.
Someone like Lydia Davis, whose one paragraph story ‘What She Knew’ – with its very matter-of-fact language explaining something as complex as identity and sexuality – I loved because it was like looking out to sea and losing yourself. She talks about this in an interview in The White Review about creating complex feelings through plain language. Reading that extract is the closest thing I’ve had to a revelation. She has been a huge inspiration.
In that plainness and normality there can be a huge gulf of sentiment. Perhaps it’s a British quality, but the way we talk to each other can be quite evasive, we try and keep ourselves to ourselves, we use turns of phrases rather than explaining ourselves. I think both this direct and vague way of talking has huge potential for poetry.
Your own poetry seems to frequently investigate ideas of ‘natural speech’, and you’ve often expressed a fondness for Frank O’Hara and Harold Pinter’s writing; what is it specifically about these ideas of normality, or straight talking, that interest you?
Like most poets my age, I’ve been influenced by the New York School and its chit chat, but I think the reason this work resonates is because my generation – more than any previous, perhaps – have not only expressed themselves through text, but through disposable text. Through MSN, Facebook and text messages, most of my generation have ‘written’ the story of their lives – millions of words – only for it all to be lost on old phones or deleted as their e-mails addresses expire. For me, this type of writing mimicked how I spoke, or played with the way I communicated with my friends, so when you see poets like O’Hara and Schuyler writing as they talked to their friends, it feels very genuine and immediate, which I think should be two foundations of poetry.
I’ve worked as a speechwriter for the Government for several years now, so I’m constantly trying to turn Government legal language in to words which could be understood by anyone. The difference between that and my personal writing is that professionally I write from a singular view (that of the speaker and their relation to policy) but in poetry there can be multiple vantage points, or one view but different reflections. Everything is a reflection in a grubby mirror.
Finally, what are you up to at the moment with your own writing?
My watch word is ‘focus’. I feel that most of my work is frenetic and the writing I admire, from writers like Rebecca Perry, Amy Key and Kathryn Maris is rigorously focused on explaining a feeling and each image shows a different angle of that complex feeling. It’s really hard for me to do – I feel that my work is quite searching, like I am trying to hide something from myself. So I’m trying to write more from a particular speaker’s viewpoint or from single ideas and exploring them. I wrote a poem recently called ‘The Baby’ about (funnily enough) a baby and its control over a person, who it speaks to in grown-up language while cooking it a plastic meal in its play kitchen. I’m also writing poems about cat profiles on Instagram.
Alex MacDonald’s Poetry School course ‘Give It To ‘Em Straight‘ is running fortnightly from February 16th. His work has been published in Best British Poetry 2015, Poetry London, 3:AM Magazine, The Quietus and Clinic. He won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in their 2016 Author Awards, and was highly commended in the 2015 Faber New Poets scheme. His pamphlet – Everything is Fine, Nothing is Ruined – was shortlisted for the Poetry School / Pig Hog Poetry Pamphlet Prize. He is one of the editors of the online poetry magazine Poems In Which.