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07 August 2010 @ 10:16 am
Interview with Jim Mainland  
Jim Mainland lives in Nibon, Shetland, and is a teacher. His collection of poems A Package of Measures was published by Pieces of Eight in 2000; he has also had work in many magazines and anthologies.

When Shetland Arts ran a project called Bards in the Bog, putting poems in public toilets to attract the world's most captive audience, Jim contributed this poem:


Watch this, watch my hands, look in my eyes:
this is viral, this is fiending, this is Celebrity Smash Your Face In,
I'm spooling tissue from an ear, I'm sawing her in half, no, really,
I'm vanishing your dosh, I'm giving it makeover, giving it bonus,
palming it, see, nothing in the box, check out
your divorce hell text tease sex tape, whoops,
gimme a tenner gimme your valuables this is a hammer this is an explosive
see the cleverdazzle off the mirrorgleam, moat me that you peasant!
over here, here, oy you, break-up Britain, toff off! watch this instead,
it's my way, it's bodies out of the hat, watch out, that's had your legs off,
this is brainsmear this is scorcher this is dying doing the job you loved this is
pure dead victim.

EDIT This poem has since been anthologised in Polygon's anthology of Scottish island poets, These Islands, We Sing

SHEENAGH: I knew your poems from your collection A Package of Measures (Pieces of Eight, 2002), so I knew that alongside your attachment to where you live and your sense of your family's place on a long timeline, there went an awareness of the contemporary and an anger about some aspects of it - like the tabloid press in "Read All About Me":

Story of my life?
I was ditch-delivered
by a baby death doctor,
dandled by a killer nanny,
stolen by a bogus social worker.

my virus
will eat your face off.

Even so, though, I was taken by surprise by your contribution to "Bards in the Bog". "Prestidigitator" fairly fizzes with anger and energy; it captures something about the zeitgeist in a way poets are always trying to do and seldom succeed at, and I think one reason your poem does succeed is that it isn't easy to pin down, you can't point to anything and say "that stands for such and such"; it's more like abstract art, an expression of an inchoate public frustration. How did it come about?

JIM: When the Daily Telegraph started drip-feeding information about MPs’ expenses (purely to boost their circulation, incidentally) it dominated the news for weeks. At the same time, soldiers were being killed in Afghanistan and it wasn’t reported. On one day, four soldiers were killed and it didn’t get a mention. What was the real scandal here?

The key idea/metaphor that suggested itself to me was misdirection – what magicians use to disguise their illusion. I remembered ‘prestidigitateur’ from school – the word seems to echo the activity as well as having a hint of agitator, agit prop, etc. The voice was going to be that tricksy, cajoling one. I like taking an idea and running with it and letting it get (almost) out of control – that way the language can mutate in interesting ways – crazy coinages and meltdown. Hopefully! ‘viral’ and ‘fiending’ were words from my notebook which found a home here.

The poems had to be no longer than 12 lines, so that meant I had to pack a lot in – another thing working in my favour. The rhythm of the poem was important, too – it had to have the distraction technique spiel going manic into breakdown.

I’m all for political poems. I remember talking to the late Lollie Graham about this and he told me how he liked Roger Woddis. His poems were like cartoons, and I think poetry should have that instant function too.

SHEENAGH: At the recent launch of the Bright Pebbles anthology of Shetland writing, you read your poem "No Particular Place" with the appropriate guitar accompaniment in the background. The poem is very much about living in the present day with a strong sense of the past, figured in a man driving through an ancient landscape listening to Chuck Berry on the car radio, and while it worked fine on the page, it was twice as good with the accompaniment. I know they've done it that way on the CD that goes with the book, and I've linked to an upload of it here so that readers can hear how it works. How do you feel about collaborations between artists in different media and have you done any others?

JIM: I intend to do more with Alan McKay, the guitarist on the track. I’ve enjoyed listening to Ian McMillan declaim along with a band. In the sixties The Fugs used to recite Blake to music, and they even did Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. The Liverpool poets had that vibe, too. Allen Ginsberg used to read to his own harmonium accompaniment, and Ivor Cutler.

Music is a huge influence on what I write and how I write, I suspect, but I’ve never written a song or even attempted one. That’s a different thing altogether. I like rap and hip hop when it isn’t sexist/homophobic/puerile – it has a real edge and some of the rhythm and rhyme is just exhilarating, and if that’s not what we try to do in different ways in poetry I don’t know what is. I also like the idea of ‘sampling’ in my poetry and mash-ups. Adrian Henri did this with ‘New Fast Automatic Daffodils’, so it’s not new.

I’ve done a couple of collaborations with artists/craftspeople, as part of initiatives set up by the Arts Trust. I’m slightly suspicious of this kind of thing when it’s imposed by the arts establishment to justify their role rather than initiated by the poets/artists, but it can work. I worked with an artist friend of mine who makes books, and the idea was we would swap artefacts and produce something inspired by each other’s work. I gave her a poem and she gave me one of her fair isle covered notebooks. I struggled to write a suitable response, but she turned my poem into a book which opened out like a concertina. It was terrific. The other venture I contributed to was the mailboats one (inspired by the St Kilda Mailboats) – I linked up with an artist who made a boat which incorporated my poem and it, along with all the others, were launched off the Skerries.

SHEENAGH: Your book title is a pun, referring to a "package of measures" in the governmental sense but hinting at the "measures" in your collection. You use free verse, and sometimes unrhymed quatrains, but you're clearly very fond of the sonnet, albeit generally softened and half-concealed by half-rhyme rather than full. That's a measure I've been using a lot myself lately, so I'm interested; what does it do for you when you choose it?

JIM: I like its self-containedness and I liked the challenge of having to work within its constraints, and the escapology it sometimes involved. And the way the search for a rhyme would sometimes take you where you wouldn’t have thought to venture otherwise. However, I haven’t written a sonnet for a while because I felt the harder thing for me was free verse and I’ve been trying to get more proficient at that – playing without the net, as Frost said. I like writing sonnets and formal pieces though – it’s like getting your tools out and being a proper ‘makar’! And I find the act of writing them especially enjoyable. I wrote a sestina (Seamus Heaney wrote one, so that made it alright) which I read at a wedding in Northern Ireland instead of my best man’s speech and to my great relief – it was a serious poem, incidentally – it went down incredibly well, and I’ve recently written a villanelle. Repetition is such a simple and powerful technique in poetry and terrific when you’re reading, I think.

I like half rhymes and they suggest themselves to me quite readily, for some reason. I also like the melancholy/minor key/flattened blues note effect the half-rhyme imparts.

SHEENAGH: People in your poems sometimes speak in dialect, like your mother in the poem "After 8 o'Clocks", but your narrative voice never does, as far as I know. Quite a lot of Shetland poets do write in dialect either all or some of the time, but presumably it isn't the voice for you. Why would that be?

JIM: I don’t really have a good enough command of it. I speak dialect to my Shetland friends, and, in a slightly modified version, I suspect, at home, even though my wife is English. My children, incidentally, speak English and have no dialect. My dialect isn’t ‘broad’, however, nor is my Shetland accent. When I left Shetland I had to speak English and at first I was always self-conscious about having to do that. I don’t carry a torch for the dialect, particularly, but there are some lovely expressive words and idioms we would be the poorer for if they were lost. But young people are choosing not to speak it and you can’t force them to. So the words will be lost and we will be left just with the accent and some vestigial words and expressions. That’s globalisation for you. I’ve tried in some poems to introduce dialect words because they were the mots justes and should be part of the wider lexicon. I have written versions of poems by other poets in dialect. I was trying to test the claim made by an academic that Shetland dialect couldn’t deal with abstractions. I thought that couldn’t be right, or at least, that that wasn’t what it was deficient in. So I ‘translated’ Eastern European poets – Holub, Sorescu, Milosz, Herbert and some poems by Simic and Les Murray. The dialect is good at skyimp – humorously debunking poems – and nature poetry, and the sentimental. The word store lends itself to that. But there is also a particular voice that dialect gravitates too easily towards: a kind of matter-of-fact, self-satisfied conservativism. This also lends it a certain charm, and regional distinctiveness, but a certain parochialism, too. So I use dialect the way I would use any poetic or literary device, really. The Shetland poet Billy Tait transcended all the limitations I have mentioned here, but, perhaps significantly, he spent most of his adult life outside Shetland, and his often brilliant and atypical dialect poems are part of the wider Scottish poetry tradition/scene he belonged to at the time, rather than arising from a Shetland tradition.

SHEENAGH: "When I left Shetland" - I'd imagine a lot of people have to leave for reasons of education or work, and many don't come back. You left and returned. Can you say a bit about the story behind that; why you left, what brought you back and how the bit in between affected your writing?

JIM: I left Shetland aged 17 to study English at Aberdeen University. When I graduated I moved to Edinburgh and worked for a couple of years before enrolling at Moray House to get my teaching qualification. Incidentally, I saw Norman MacCaig and Hugh MacDiarmid give readings there, separately. It was my intention to stay in Edinburgh, but there were no teaching jobs at that time. I'd just got married, so when I was offered the post of English teacher at Sandwick I took it. And that was that.

To be honest, I didn't write a great deal at that time, and I've kept very little of it. I nevertheless still considered myself to be a writer; I suppose I was just waiting for the propitious moment...

SHEENAGH: Some writers like to work in isolation, but these days there's more and more of a shared culture, with writers associating either in the flesh via workshops or sometimes online via such things as mailing lists. You live in a beautiful but very isolated place, as I recall from the times I've walked there. Do you have a sense of belonging to a wider writing community, in Shetland or beyond, and in what way - do you often meet other writers, or stay in touch in other ways?

JIM: I don’t really feel part of a wider writing community, perhaps because I’m drawn to the solitary nature of writing or maybe because I’m not particularly community-minded, at least not voluntarily so.

However, some years ago now, I when I was invited to join a writers’ group by my colleague at Brae High, Laureen Johnson, it really kick-started my writing. For one thing, it gave me a deadline and something I hadn’t until then thought much about – an audience. It also helped me become less self-conscious (and less solipsistic) about my writing and that made me a better writer.

I do enjoy meeting other writers at readings and workshops whenever the opportunity arises but living in a relatively remote area affects my participation here. I tend to commune a lot with my many books of poetry, mind you.

SHEENAGH: And others, I bet! You once reviewed a collection of mine and what I recall best is the fact that you "got" all kinds of allusions that other reviewers had not, both ones to books and ones to real-life events or characters. We've spoken of your isolated locale but you're clearly massively in touch with what goes on. Most of the poets I know stay that way by spending ages networking online, but I get the impression you're not a facebook type; are you more for old-style media like books, radio, newspapers? I know a novelist who refuses to go online because she fears she'd waste too much time there, and though I value it a lot as a way of researching and staying in touch, I sometimes wish I'd followed her example!

JIM: I'm certainly not a Facebook type - too old for such preening, I fear. My problem, as you have no doubt gathered by now, is that I use email, etc, at snailmail tempo. I do prefer 'old' media, for all sorts of reasons. I've been a subscriber to Granta since volume 7, the Poetry Book Society for decades, LRB, TLS and the Poetry Review intermittently, and I use the non-virtual library whenever I find myself in Lerwick.

It was always difficult to keep in touch with what I considered was important when I was growing up and living in Shetland – you had to be extremely resourceful and alert. I’ve retained that kind of radar – always jotting things down, book titles, authors, recommendations, etc, or cutting things out of newspapers and magazines. I was pleased to see my oldest daughter does the same! In fact, living in Shetland has probably made these resources all the more precious and necessary. I know you can find all this and more online, but I have a problem processing so much information, much of which, of course, is nonsense or barely relevant. And even if you come across the occasional serendipitous treasure, it is usually disproportionate to the time you have spent.

When I was growing up it was the opposite of the avalanche of infotainment we have now. BBC1 came to Shetland in 1964, I think. Because it was such a novelty, it stayed on whatever the programme. All I can say is, thank you Lord Reith. That was undoubtedly the beginning of my interest in all areas of the arts and what lay beyond and it coincided with my interest in literature.

However, I do all my writing via a laptop and have done for ages. My notebooks, with all their bits of paper and drafts and false starts and doodles and meandering, seem strangely quaint now. That way of writing just suddenly stopped. And I use the internet now for music all the time – infinite riches in a little room.

But we don’t get very good broadband in Nibon. It comes via a satellite dish the size of Desperate Dan’s biggest frying pan, courtesy of a Scottish Government initiative, but it’s still very slow and unreliable. Apparently, this is because we live ‘at the end of the line’; every time we have a service problem, that’s the rather dystopian-sounding excuse we’re given.

Links and other poems:

Bright Pebbles (ed. Mary Blance and Laureen Johnson, pub. Shetland islands Council 2010), an anthology of writing about Shetland with accompanying CD, includes Jim's poem "No Particular Place To Go".

No Particular Place To Go CD track of Jim reading the poem.

Mailboats A collaboration between sculptors and poets in Orkney and Shetland, inspired by a scene from Michael Powell's film The Edge of the World. The mailboats were launched from Skerries, Shetland on August 9th 2008 and this page shows the collaboration between Jim and textile artist Jo Jack - click on the title "My Dearest" to read the poem.

A Shetland Anthology (Shetland Publishing 1998) contains Jim's poems "My Grandfather's Gift" and "Songline".

There are few copies left of A Package of Measures (time someone reprinted it) but if anyone registers an interest, I can pass it on.

More poems
A Robin in Nibon
I’d like to meet his tailor

I did not send for you
but having blown in
you must have a story to tell
and here’s mine:

you will never soak up all the blood
of the world
nor staunch the flood of it

so wear its badge
like another in another land
for this weather

if you like
read the riot act
to the wren
the most diminutive of birds

and then just be
what I want you to be

my fire in the night
my flag in the day

The Gunnister Man
I knew him, Horatio

I came across a photo of you, aged three or four,
squinting into the sun: you and your mother,
and I think that must be your sister.

Nothing in that gaze gave notice of the days
ahead, of course. And nothing could ease
their so much weight and weeping anyway.

Except your music, and that came much too late.
I’m hearing you say, Look at me now, mate,
a whoreson whose songs sell real estate.

In the gardens of Bapaume the dead elbow out
still, their bones clacking like crockery. I hate
this life. If I could just win home, you wrote.

If I had the gift, I’d spring you through a portal
into bracken, crowned in rowan or myrtle,
pierced a hundred-fold, immaculately immortal,

and on the run, from yourself: a rumoured spectre
roaming the moor, taking quit rent to the Factor.
A version of you is sung by metal detector

and ringtoned to a man, climbing a hill,
motorvating, if you will, between the will-
o-the-wisp and the whip-poor-will,

between the hairst blink and the horse-gock,
and a sudden psychedelic
uproar of the whaup and the lark.

There was the usual gossip about a tryst,
about something toxic in the enfolding mist,
and a scar that never healed across each wrist;

perhaps he’d turned a head or two in town,
his skin was too expressive of the bone,
the diligent carrier of a defective gene.

In the abandoned lodge where we repair,
clods crumble and topple in a blue peat fire,
and row after row of hosiery exhaling there

(After Les Murray)
This is a translation into Shetland dialect of the Les Murray poem Performance)

I starred dastreen, I shon;
I wis fitwark an firewark in wan,

a rocket oagin up ta spret da mirk
wi a sprickle-shooer o brichtness
an a whaup-pleepse on a bulderit bit;
I wis blashy blinks an blibes blue-litt
fae da boddim ta da croon ida lift;
I wis a reeky taand ida heevins’ hert-sten,
da mirrie dancers geen halliget;
I wis a slester o lowin pent, lowsin
gowd an siller, cloorin een anidder,
an endin wi a rissenin, rid-tongued aze:
wan hoor o a yallicrack, boye!

An as aye happens eftir ony victory,
naethin can aese da döl I dree.