Part one of this interview is here
You go on to win awards and to become the Makar of Stirling. How do you manage to do that?
Oh, I had achieved lots in my poetry by the time that happened! Amongst other things, I’d been joint winner of a competition by the Scotland on Sunday newspaper to find Scotland’s women writers of the future. I’d already held three Scottish Arts Council Creative Writing Fellowships, as well as a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship, and had several books published, including novels for children with Puffin.
My connections with Stirling were very strong. I was born in Stirling’s Airthrey Castle, and had been living in the Stirling area for many years. As a poet and tutor I had made quite an impact in the literary scene prior to becoming Makar. For example, I tutored Stirling Writers’ Group for many years with poets, novelists and scriptwriters attending the weekly sessions, It was a vibrant group. Many of them were getting published and winning major literary prizes. This was before the University of Stirling set up a Creative Writing department, so the group I tutored attracted students and academics as well as community members.
With the young novelist, Alan Bisset and the late Colin Murie, I also had set up a regular live literature evening for Stirling. The Council Arts department got on board, and that brought a literary life to the city in a new and exciting way. All my work running these Live Literature evenings was carried out on a voluntary basis, for the pure joy of it. When the council came to choose the Makar it wasn’t completely out of the blue that my name would come up.
You are often talked about as “an important voice in Scottish poetry?” How does that come about?
Ha! There may be those who would disagree with that assessment! What’s important to one person may not be to another. My poetry is both accessible and grounded in the real world I live in, so that’s meant I can reach a wide readership, and one that is eager to connect with poetry when all too often they’ve been alienated from it. Back when I was coming through the poetry world in the 1990’s there were several very established literary/arts magazines and they were a huge influence in the development of writers. Two of the key magazines in my development as a poet were both Edinburgh-based, Chapman and Cencrastus. I was also published a fair amount in the Glasgow-based West Coast Magazine. These and others were very supportive of my work. I’m grateful in particular to Chapman and Cencrastus. They published my poems, recommend my work to others, and each brought out individual collections of my poetry, Wild Women of a Certain Age, and Graffiti in Red Lipstick. Wild Women of a Certain Age became Chapman’s best-selling poetry collection.
Why do you think they supported your work?
I was, at that time, bringing a female voice, and a working class female voice at that, to Scottish poetry. That in itself wasn’t unique, but perhaps my engagement with both the feminist and the political was more rare. For example, in my first collection I was writing about female circumcision, about female infanticide, quite serious issues and these kind of issues weren’t really at the forefront of public consciousness or the consciousness of the literary world, which was dominated by men. I wrote a sequence about my experience of going through mastectomy for breast cancer when I was just 36. But I also wrote about my frustration with Scottish politics.
I think that poetry and politics go together, and poetry is a good way of looking at, or examining, issues. It can be an effective, punchy way of impacting those who might not otherwise have thought too much about certain issues, such as male violence against women. I like to write about people on the edges of society, the powerless, the easily overlooked. But I like to write about the joy of being a woman too, to celebrate womanhood.
So part of the answer is that you address issues which are not being looked into by other poets?
At that time, yes. It was much more rare. I have poems which are still popular which deal with rape, for example. The poem “no angel” which was written in 1997, about the situation where a 9 year old young girl is raped but the judge suggests, “She is no angel herself”. That resonates now because the same situations, the same level of disrespect for women and girls, whether with judges or the police keep happening. I know the poem ‘no angel’ is used in the training of volunteers for rape crisis work. I also like my work to be accessible.
As the wonderful American feminist poet, Adrienne Rich said, “too much, already, has been buried or mystified, or written of necessity in code”. Until recently that’s made poetry problematic for a lot of people. As if you need to investigate or interrogate a poem in some academic way! The poem is a living thing. I love when a poem connects with my gut, my heart, first. The poetry I like best does not obfuscate, but casts light on the matter it’s talking about, helps the reader see more clearly, engage simultaneously on an emotional, spiritual level, as well as at an intellectual level. Obfuscation can lead to exclusion, and I believe strongly that poetry should be accessible to and enjoyable by as many people as possible.
See more of Magi Gibson’s work at the link below
Part three of this interview is here