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Transom:
American poets tend to take Pound’s dictum to “make it new” as a foundational principle, and as a result many of us have a short literary memory. The poetic culture in the UK seems far more conscious of the legacy of centuries of predecessors. What are the pleasures and challenges of contributing your voice to this chorus?

Mackay:
I recognise the difference you describe.  I wonder if it could be said that you got Pound and we got Eliot as the great modernist presiding spirit, and so we are ever dutifully fitting ourselves into Eliot’s ‘tradition’ in which living and dead poets rub shoulders. I would also wonder if that’s about national self-understanding – without an ‘old’ of which a culture can speak in a way that everyone recognises to some degree, ‘making it new’ becomes an imperative?  Perhaps UK poetry doesn’t have that American anxiety of making new, that rich creative innovation, but perhaps we get a sense of history and therefore a richness of allusion and texture instead (though of course, British poetry is not as monocultural as our canon would have you believe).  It’s not an either/or split: the ideal position is one which cultivates the drive to make new with and in a recognition of historical inheritance (as an artistic and existential inevitability).  That is how poetry can be political without versifying polemic.  It recognises our historical position and uses that as a starting point for imagining beyond.  If that is how I understand the poetic culture of the UK, then the pleasure and challenge of joining the chorus are both found in the project of making this a reality without becoming an ever more rarified portrait of one node, of the poet’s own subjectivity. The borders of that position currently feel very porous – in part through the dialogue of poetics between US and British writers.

Transom:
What’s happening now in the UK poetry scene that you find particularly exciting – or frustrating?

Mackay:
Plurality is what is exciting about the poetry of here and now.  It feels like a more plural artform than it has, I suspect, ever before.  That comes with a tendency to split into tedious good/bad objects (‘old/young’ ‘page/stage’ ‘political’/‘aesthetic’) but it also feels like the possibility is real for recognising these as limits and so collectively, and variously, exploring the edges of perception and possibility.  What I find frustrating is one of the forces working against that plurality.  There feels to me to be a growing uber-ironicisation and anti-poetry which risks collapsing that plurality into an infinite regression of ever more arch irony. It is a dual move at work, in which poetry (as a matrix of cultural practice), seeks to turn in on itself (in the sense that its concerns are self-referential, and it is concerned primarily with the ephemeral) whilst disavowing the personal altogether, as if poetry wasn’t human, and fundamentally social. From what I know, it is a tension that emerged earlier within American poetics, but has, I think, been negotiated more fruitfully than we seem to be managing.

Transom:
In your poem, the speaker remarks that “History is neither now/ nor England.” How does this “neither/nor” construction, which seems to locate the poem outside the boundaries of time and place, reflect your own poetics?

Mackay:
In the first instance of course, I’m flicking my Vs at Eliot; I’m ham-fistedly killing the primordial father. He, in Little Gidding, evokes the twilight English country church and declares ‘History is now and England.’  What Eliot is doing is discovering a natural sacrament, one of his “timeless moments.”  For Eliot, History is incarnate whereas for me, History is always just beyond; the project of human history yet to begin until we overcome these social relations. At its most basic level, this poem is a description of getting stoned in a London park on a busy September weekday evening, and revelling in that embodied hyper-reality that altered states can produce. For the speaker, this is an intimation of mortality by re-collecting what is now, to bastardise Ferlingetti. It is a revelling in a moment which, perhaps, reflects the possibility of another social reality, present in its absence, and is playful and irreverent with that paradox. This provides a brief moment when everything is ‘not much too much’; a sort of existential inbreath where the speaker can see ourselves as we are. So in one sense, I am trying to place that voice in very specific time and space, because it is only from this reality-as-it-really-is, that new possibilities can emerge. I am inverting Eliot by using the language of his neo-platonist theology to the ends of radical social expression and so seizing upon a moment of grace in a graceless world. As I write this, that feels at once to be the opposite project to Eliots’ and exactly the same task, both at once.