An edited transcript…
JS: Bill Herbert, thank you for agreeing to this interview for Dundee University Review of the Arts and congratulations on being appointed Dundee’s Makar. So, it’s obvious what my opening query’s going to be – what does this mean, that you’re going to be Dundee’s Makar? What are you going to have to do? And what does this mean to you?
WNH: Well, I think, first of all, it’s a great honour and a great surprise to me to be put into this kind of position in relation to the city of your birth. You know, certainly, for me, I’ve written about Dundee for decades. It’s been one of my pervading returning subjects. I use it as – I think it’s Roy Fisher says about Birmingham, “I use it to think with”, you know – so, similarly, I think of Dundee in this way. Well, you know, the Makar is a marvellous term, isn’t it? It’s this idea which cuts to the heart of what a poet is. You make things. You make things out of words, you make things out of language, and you hope that they communicate to an audience. To be a Dundee Makar is to have a quite specific first audience of Dundonians but then also that issue of speaking on the behalf of how you think of the Dundee spirit, the Dundee mind, to Scotland and to the UK and to the world, yeah? All of those are the kind of ideas that race through my mind when I think of a Dundee Makar.
JS: Okay. You mentioned the Dundee mind. Is there a mindset that goes with being Dundonian?
WNH: Well, I think there are a set of ways of behaving that you wouldn’t say were exclusively Dundonian but you would certainly say were identifiably Dundonian. And I think there’s a very kind of lively, sardonic relationship between the genders in Dundee which is to do with its specific history. The Mike Marra song, “Hermless”, sums something of that up –the idea that, the “kettle-biler”, the male, was often in a female position because the women were able to earn in the jute mills. That’s still recent enough history to be in the genealogy; to be in the psychology, and it certainly felt so true. I don’t think of Dundee as being a kind of macho city in the same way as perhaps you might think of Glasgow as a city with that kind of characteristic, identifiable characteristic, Jimmy, as a character you would associate with that city. We don’t really have that in Dundee. So there is that, which I think is a kind of lively, dialogic thing going on between genders.
There’s also an interest in history. There’s a kind of a very powerful historical imagination in Dundee. People are fascinated by their own history, their family history, their local history and how Dundee has reflected on itself through the ages. I think there is a huge interest in that. You see it in book sales. You see it in book publication. And you see it in various societies that people throng to and are very happy to join.
JS: Okay. Do you think Dundonians have got linguistic resources that you won’t find anywhere else? I mean, you write in Scots and many good poets are now writing in Scots, at least some of the time. Is there a Dundee inflection which is distinctive within Scots?
WNH: Well, I would answer that in one syllable: eh! There is. It is the case that the combination of east coast Scots, the massive influx of Irish population in the nineteenth century, and the kind of collision between the teuchter speech, the strong Doric of the north-eastern part, and that kind of industrial city of that whole period from the eighteen forties, eighteen fifties right through to the collapse of industries in the seventies and eighties and nineties, has engendered a very strong linguistic resource which a lot of Dundee writers draw on. I think there’s a kind of, again an easy reach going on between the two languages, between an extreme Dundee Scots and a polite English register. In the same way as there is a dialogue between the genders, there’s a dialogue between the dialects as well.
JS: I heard recently from a local historian that the specifically Dundee accent appears to have emerged only in the last two hundred and fifty years which surprised me because I’d known it all my life, being Dundonian myself. So I was surprised that it was that recent. And I wondered – of course, technically, how this happened. How does an accent become distinctive? I haven’t got to the bottom of that.
You’re teaching in Newcastle. Which is Geordie land.
WNH: Which is Geordiestan, indeed, yes, yes.
JS: And the accent down there, of course, is extremely marked and recognisable internationally and, I wonder, do you ever read Dundonian poems in Newcastle, and if so, how does that register with Geordies?
WNH: Geordies immediately recognise the city-specific dialect. And, in fact, I’ve got a few poems which are written in really very bad Geordie which I’ve done over the years because I’ve been down there almost twenty years now so I’ve had the experience in both directions – of reading Dundee poems to Geordies; reading Geordie poems to Dundonians. And I think, yes, they identify. They connect. Of course, I mean, historically it is part of the same English – it’s northern English which was spoken from north of the Humber all the way up..so they’re not distinct in that way. And one of the experiences I certainly had when I went down to Newcastle for the first time was one of recognition of: A) following more of it than I did, than I thought I would, rather. And B), of actually just feeling at home with the idea of it being city-specific, you know? So, I’ve done a lot of very weird mapping of Dundee on to Newcastle and Newcastle on to Dundee in my efforts to be at home in both places now.
JS: What will it mean to your Newcastle colleagues and to your students that you are Dundee Makar? Will that have any meaning for them, do you think?
WNH: I think it’ll have a degree of meaning because that role, if not exactly that title, is familiar down there as well. If you think about the way that Basil Bunting was seen as a writer of Northumberland, or subsequent writers like Barry MacSweeney were seen as very strongly representative figures of the city and its hinterland. I think the idea of a city-specific Makar, even if the word itself is not as familiar, is quite clear. But, of course, remember that the Makums of Sunderland derived their name, the typical, insulting nickname for someone from Sunderland – the Makum – it’s straightforwardly from the same verb – mak. Because the idea was that they pronounced that word slightly differently from the Geordies so it was a little shibboleth. So from the Makum to a Makar – it’s not a strange event for them.
JS: I mean the word “Makar” has a Geordie sound to it even. Broad Geordie. Well, what do you think, what kind of resources do you think Scots has as a poetic language which you won’t find in mainstream English or Standard English or received pronunciation?
WNH: I suppose my perception of it is less of a kind of distinct linguistic entity in that sort of way. I tend to see these things as being part of the normal resources of the Scot. So that it just shades from one to the other. And, as I was saying earlier, at one point you might be speaking quite a literary English or an educated or academic English; at the other you might very much not be. So… it’s more that Scots have resources in both directions rather than that Scots provides a specific additional resource, you know? To be able to speak in an academic English is a positive advantage in our society in certain respects and to be able to speak in a demotic and dialect-based Scots is a different kind of advantage, you know? I see them both as entirely positives. So, what specifically when I’m writing? Well, certainly much more satiric force, much stronger, more aggressive, use of lots of sweary words.
JS: Was this because of the kinetics of the language?
WNH: Rhythmically, of course, you’re much more sure of yourself, you’re on much fleeter ground, yes.
JS: And when you say satiric, Bill, do you mean that Scots has some kind of comic resources that you won’t find anywhere else?
WNH: Not that you’ll never find them anywhere else. It’s just that they manage to hit a particular pitch in Scots. The other thing I would say is tenderness as well. That Scots is a very lyric language and so the capacity for – if you think about the genres you can cover and the fact that you can write a good love poem in Scots. is very helpful in your dealings with the ladies, so..
JS: I’ll take your word for it.
WNH: Yeah, we can but try, Jim. I find that those kinds of emotional edges are rounded out much more in Scots, that the language of tenderness and the language of, I suppose, abuse if you like, are areas in which Scots adds or augments English. But it’s also a language that offers a kind of psychological insight in a slightly different way because it’s much less bothered with Latinate and Greek terms and it borrows much more strongly from the northern European base. And so you find that you’re more connected to something, or the reader is more directly connected to it. And the simple one is the one we started with. “Poet” comes from the Greek for “making” in exactly the same way. “Makar” is a fairly straightforward translation from the Greek but one of them sounds much more manual, much more physical and the other sounds much more intellectual, much more removed. So that little transit between the etymologies, that’s something that Scots gives you.
JS: This is kind of new to me. I’m late in the day to appreciate the resources in Dundonian which I never write although I was brought up on broad Dundonian in the home. But one thing that I’ve learned in recent years, I always thought of Dundonian as a great comic resource but various poets from around here have been helping me to grasp its capacity for pathos which is a lesson for me. This is something I hadn’t been aware of. This is very close to your idea about tenderness.
WNH: I think so.
JS: That you can also do suffering seriously in Dundonian Scots which was a new idea to me. Bill, we’re hoping that since you’re here in connection with the Literary Festival and you have been launching Whaleback City which you’ve co-edited with Andy Jackson who works here on campus…. Well, we were kind of wondering if you would like to read either a couple of poems from Whaleback – your own stuff – or something from Omnesia which is your recent two-volume..
WNH: Right, right, I could do the same from Omnesia then. You get a little animation when I do that because you can see if I rapidly alternate between volumes, the squid, the flying squid appears to move. Well, you set it up in a kind of .. this is a camera trick – they speed it up later. You see, I do this and then they magically transform that into a flapping squid.
WNH: Look at that line up there. Splendid, yeah. Well, I’d be very happy to. I’d be delighted to. Do you have any strong preferences? I could certainly read something from Whaleback..
JS: Well, perhaps one thing from Whaleback that you’ve written and maybe one thing from Omnesia?
JS: Perhaps, one of these could be in Standard English
WNH: And one could be in Scots.
JS: How does that sound?
WNH: That sounds very sensible. Again, I suppose that the reason I was fiddling around with these two things like that is because the books are dialogic. They interact with each other thematically. They contrast structures and ideas and images and languages in the way that you’re just suggesting I do. And for me that ties back to what we were talking about. You know, that this is a specific resource that Scots people, Dundonian people, have. There is a sense that there is somewhere else they can go. There is another edge or pole or point that they can take themselves to emotionally and intellectually or linguistically and that these extremes are always in dialogue with each other. There’s always a tension of one sort or a tenderness or a connection between them. So, for me, I’m always very interested when you start writing in Scots, and this isn’t a digression, by the way, folks, this is a very elaborate, me approaching the piece I’m going to read from so it does conjoin up.
I didn’t write in Scots. I read Burns. I read MacDiarmid. I went to university, I studied them and I didn’t do it. I thought that it was something historically distinct. And then I came back to Dundee when I was twenty-one or so and simply wrote the Doldrums in a very short, intense space of time. And the Doldrums were a sequence in Scots, entirely in Dundonian Scots and I’d never thought about writing it before, and so there was something of a kind of an extreme reaction to having been really quite far away, intellectually. And then coming home. Something broke out or broke loose as a result of that happening. I don’t think, if I’d stayed, at that point, I would have written in Scots. It might have happened later, it might, you know, it could have happened at some other point. But at that point, it was specifically the experience of going away and coming back. So the “Doldrum” that’s actually in Whaleback City is the one that’s set in the street where I was brought up, Peddie Street, and it already features McGonagall as a character in it in my kind of psycho… You know, my poetic psychodrama already features the great fool, McGonagall and this poem,“2nd Doldrum” which is almost one of the first ones where that Dundee voice came out for the first time. So the “2nd Doldrum” is called “Elephants’ Graveyard” and it reads like this:
Whaur ur yi Dundee? Whaur’s yir Golem buriit?
Whaur doon yir pendies lurks it?
Broon brick, eldscoorit, timedustchoakit,
blin windies – whaur’s MaGonnagal’s hert?
Creh o seagulls echoes thru closies’ lugs:
nithin but’iz hertsherds, shatterit, deidtrootdreh,
nithin but vishuns o lehburers deean.
Eh kent yi i thi street; Peddie Street
whaur boarn an raisd in tenements
ma sowelclert sheppit; Eh spoattit yi
certin a wheelbarra ower cobblies
(ower tarmaccadum and undir um’s thi cobblestanes,
deid buriit jaabanes o yir weans’ hopes),
Eh saw yi in grey overalls, een deid an blank,
heid bulletgrey an taursmearit, durt
clung til yir een,
and indivisibul fae yir past,
oot o thi fremms of photygraphs
waulkin weldit tae wheelbarra,
haunds soldert tae toil, an nae rest.
Ghaist o thi Thurties, Dundee whan thi Daith cam doon,
grey cinders descendin, meldit wi claiths an dreams,
Dundeee whan Amerika fell,
Dundee whan thi Depreshun cam owerseas
an bidit, an restit in oor faithirs’ braces –
oor flatbunnits! oor bandylegs! Oor rickets!
Waulkin uppa street, a deid, a ghostie,
a passedby, a damnit, a wurkir –
ghaist restless and nivir kennin green.
JS: Thank you. Em, you read that with some passion.
WNH: Yeah, well, it was a very kind of political stance, I suppose, that the Doldrums came from. It was nineteen-eighties, early, the Tories were in power. Not like now, you know, they weren’t busy dismantling everything, no, not like now, you know what I mean. It was a, and it also seemed a very hopeless time because Labour did not offer a coherent response, arguably. There was no Nationalist movement on the scene, everyone was still a bit stunned by what had happened about devolution. It seemed as though the Tories would reign for a thousand years. And at the end of it, you know, there would just be machines tramping on our skulls. And it was the doldrums, there was a kind of a spiritual state of complete stasis, of inertia, of, if anything, entropy. If anything was going to happen, it was going to get worse, yeah? So, yeah, it came from quite a passionate, passionate place.
But also it was an, an eruption of this voice, you know, so that came from somewhere that wasn’t entirely rational. I didn’t think, “Oh, yes I know what my career needs, I need to write in a language that nobody reads.” You know? That was not a rational decision. That was something that just came about, and I had to kind of go with it because it was quite a strong impulse.
JS: Well, that’s interesting. Thank you for reading that to us and talking about it. Bill, you’ve described yourself in years gone by as a polystylist. Is that your coinage?
WNH: Polystylism. I think it’s Schnittke that comes up with it, the Russian composer, as a way of describing what happened in his music kind of post-Serialist, thinking back to Shostakovich, thinking back to Romantic tradition. And he just suddenly seems to realise that, actually, the thing that you can do, imaginatively, is anything. If you have the technical wherewithal to bring it all together. And then, actually, once you allow yourself to do that, is how the anythings interact with each other, that actually is the style. Right? So you can have a bit of straightforward experimental writing. You have a bit of performance work. You can have a bit of more kind of stanzaically academic writing. You can do all these things, if you can do them technically. The interesting thing is what happens when you pull them together. You start to get a metastructure in which these different modes speak to each other and construct something else. Start saying something else. And at some point, I realised that that was sort of what I was doing. And, of course, it began with just English and Scots. You know, that kind of thing, and realising that I was going from one to the other for a particular reason. And then it extended to, yes, I was doing something with comic verse, I was doing something with love poetry, I was doing something with a little bit of politics, as Ben Elton used to say way back in the eighties, and all these things gradually became like they were pieces of vocabulary or grammatical units. And I was trying to say something else, using each of them, but it was the combination that actually produced the intelligible statement, you know? So that was what polystylism meant to me. It was a kind of a reason for writing slightly larger, thicker books than people normally assume poetry is written in and that was kind of because I’ve found those narrow little sixty-four page books rather monotonous, stylistically. I felt that there is this really kind of highly thought-of people writing sixty-four pages and I was bored by page thirty-two because there was no variation, as it were, you know. So, I realised then that my shtick was how the styles interacted, how the styles clashed, how the styles complemented.
JS: Well, that’s an interesting reply but we’re bandying this word “style” back and forth and I’m doing it somewhat uncritically. And I suppose we’re using it as a default term. But if pressed, how would you define style? What is it? I’m thinking, something Coco Chanel said, something to the effect that fashions come and go; style doesn’t. Is there an analogy to this in poetry?
JS: How, what is style? If you’re going to be a polystylist, presumably you know what style is and you would have had your thoughts about this.
WNH: Yes. Well,, I should say, for me, style is a particular accumulation of voice and form, that it is the way that a voice sits in and resolves and actually redirects a form. So it’s about two elements coming together and each one changing the other. So, it’s a kind of a wee gestalt of those two elements. Without the voice which comes from a particular milieu, a particular place, a particular time, and without the form, which may have a very different historical background, you don’t get that kind of spark of something that is distinctive and recognisably that author. Or that generation, even. Because, there are times when you do feel that other writers and you share certain stylistic concerns or certain modes. Certainly, in the late eighties and early nineties there was a whole bunch of Scottish writers who seemed to share some stylistic concerns –Richard Price, Robert Crawford, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey.
JS: So, is style the same thing as manner?
WNH: I suppose there’s a manner in which you go about things but there’s always kind of teetering between manner and mannerism, isn’t there. Of these things being taken..
JS: Well, how would you define mannerism, now that you’ve raised the word?
WNH: I would say that when these things become emblems in themselves; when they become tropes that you deliver as kind of signs to the reader – “Look, look, I’m doing that thing that I do”. As soon as you do that thing, then you’ve crossed over into mannerism because mostly, as soon as you do that, you need to put it to one side and do something else, actually.
JS: But how do you do this because almost by definition, mannerism is something that we’ve all got in everyday life. But are not particularly conscious of. So somebody might point out to you, “Do you realise you’ve got this mannerism?” and you’ll say, “No, when do I do that?” “Well, you’re doing’ it now”, they’ll say. How do you catch yourself doing this in writing and how do you stop yourself from doing it?
WNH: Yeah, well, I think that most poetry is about a process of increasing awareness, you know. You’re moving in your work from a position of doing something unconsciously to doing it with a certain degree of self-consciousness, to doing it with a further degree of simple awareness. You understand what the use of that thing that you happened upon was or is, you know. So, actually, you’re constantly evolving as a writer from one of these positions and through one of those positions and reaching another one, you know. And after a position of awareness in which you’ve said, “Oh, I do this particular thing.” Like, for instance, I use McGonagall’s voice. I write every now and then a poem in which I’m either adopting McGonagall’s voice or I’m using the ridiculous structure of a McGonagall poem where the delayed second rhyme and the banality of the delayed second rhyme, is part of a comic effect. Right? So, I do that every now and then. I’m aware of it as a sort of recurrent mannerism and the thing that I now do is only deploy it in an unusual or unlikely circumstance. So, I actually have to take the MacGonagallism somewhere new in order for it to be worth deploying at all, you know? Because otherwise, it’s just a trick.
JS: That’s interesting. So there is a distinction between mannerism and manner and another distinction between manner and style. Seems to be where we’re getting with this conversation.
WNH: Well, we can keep on distinguishing. Yeah, yeah, of course. I mean, all I would say is that the imaginative act is one of establishing distinctions and finding out what this shade adds to the thing that you’re trying to do.
JS: So, if somebody were to say to you, “Bill Herbert, what do you think are your current mannerisms, the things that you don’t know you’re doing but you cannot help doing because you’re Bill Herbert”, are these to the forefront of your awareness or are they buried, are they still buried? Are they constantly coming to the fore of your awareness?
WNH: Well, you know, we’ve just crossed over to therapy haven’t we?
JS: That wasn’t intentional.
WNH: I cannot, by definition, be aware of them all. I can only endeavour as part of the imaginative career, become aware of how I can use as many of them as possible and how I must set some inevitably aside.
JS: So is this one of the things for which a poet needs readers?
WNH: Totally. Totally. Exactly so, Yes. Yes. And all levels of readers. I mean sometimes the reader is yourself ten years later. You know, sometimes the reader is someone close that you work with very regularly who you see. Or I’ve always gone to workshops. I still go to workshops now and get feedback from people who I trust. And sometimes the readers are indeed what happens when it goes into a magazine, it goes into a book, or you’re at a reading and people want to ask you questions. People come up to you, people want to deliver short statements about your general uselessness and it’s a constant process of contextualising your work. But you only ever contextualise it through having a very strong sense of what the audience is doing in relation to that work.
WNH: Bill, you’re very prolific.
WNH: I tend to think I’m a fairly lazy and laid back chap who spends most of his time gazing out of the window, wondering if one could reasonably, at this hour, pop to the pub.
JS: But still the poems keep coming.
WNH: Yeah, yeah.
JS: Whether you’re laid back or not.
JS: This prolificness, I don’t know if that’s even a word,
JS: That doesn’t sound right.
WNH: Can we go with that one? Prolific, prolif..yeah,,okay
JS: The state of being prolific. Is that a mannerism? Is that something you cannot help? You know, some poets, the poems trickle out of them very slowly and the final body of work – TE Hulme, is it Ian Hamilton, very small body of work. Other people like Shakespeare – just pours out and pours out. You’re at the prolific end of the spectrum. And you know, I’m just curious. Is this something that you cannot help?
WNH: I’ve got a very rapid capture, instinct, i.e. if I get an idea for a poem then it’s down very quickly and then it starts to be worked on. There’s a huge amount of those that never go anywhere and just get thrown out. But I find that rapid capture is effectively what a prolific poet is doing. They’re not letting the ideas go by them, and my feeling about that is there’s as many ways of being a poet as there are poets. It’s not that one of them’s better or worse than the other, but some people like to have a slow capture rate where the thing has really got to sink through their consciousness before the pen gets to the paper or the fingers get to the keyboard. But for me, it’s the other way round, you know. It rises to the surface and appears very rapidly.
JS: Well, the old-fashioned word for this would have been wit. By which the seventeenth-century and earlier would have meant intelligence at play. Not, not in the narrow sense we use wit now. But having your wits about you. All five wits about you. This is interesting, this comes across very strongly in your writing, that there is an analytic intelligence in the work here which would have been called, three or four centuries ago, a witty mind. Do you see yourself in this light? Is that a fair assessment?
WNH: I think it is in a certain respect. We were just at an event which you’ll remember because you were there, to launch this book. And after that event, one of my old teachers came up to me. Gerry Baird, and I hadn’t seen him for quite a while. Another one of my teachers, I’m in much more regular contact with. And Gerry taught a number of figures to me in precisely these terms so that it was the way that I thought of Donne. It was the way I thought of MacCaig and, indeed, actually, it was the way I thought of Brecht as well. The way that Brecht constructed ideas was very much about the map of wit, the grasp of an interaction between the vocabulary and the intellect of the writer and the society and the social pressures of the time which he found himself. That nexus was, yeah, that was wit, yes. Yes.
JS: Your poetry seems to me to answer TS Eliot’s complaint about the association of sensibility that he says kicked in with Milton.
JS: I think it’s in Tradition and the Individual Talent or it might be in The Metaphysical Poets. One of these two essays. He says that for Donne, a thought and a feeling were the same thing. But by the time you get to Milton and then, beyond him, to Browning and Tennyson, thought and feeling have been decanted from each other in some way that Eliot hoped could be resolved and I kind of see your writing as aspiring to that condition. Of being, analytic, sharp, intelligent, and yet strong feeling at the same time. With no way of separating out these two things
WNH: I recognise very strongly that idea. Yes, that things are not opposed in an a and not a style. Usually for me, ideas and concepts and feelings and emotions are in very strong intimate dialogue with each other. Which is the same idea that I think we’ve been referring to several times in this conversation. That Scots and English are not separate. They’re regarded and defined as two languages but they’re not separate languages because we’re doing both of them all the time.The, genders are not separate in this culture
JS: They’re both dialects of Anglo-Saxon.
WNH: Yes. That’s fine. Yes, that’s fine.
WNH: Yes. It’s fine. It’s much more productive to think, “What will these things say to each other?” than, “How do these things differ from each other”. A kind of categorisation to separate has never strongly appealed to me.
JS: Well, your last collection, Omnesia, which you’ve already flashed at the camera a couple of times. This is an unusual move, to put out two books of poetry simultaneously, with the considerable overlap and non-overlap and no way of knowing which one should read first. Or which one is a variant on the other. How did you arrive at this unusual approach to this recent collection?
WNH: I think…it was a bit of a daydream actually. I remember I was going to do an event in Galway, in the Cuirt Festival in Galway City and I had about half an hour before I was supposed to turn up and I’d been worrying about this, I’d been worrying about it because, effectively, I’d had this option where I could have produced two separate books several years apart and I’d held on to that kind of first book cos it was too nascent, it wasn’t complete. And as I got to the point where, you know, I was producing at the same rate. So, as I got to the point where the second book would have appeared, I suddenly realised that I had a crisis brewing, you know, where I’d have to rethink the way that these structures were being put together in my work. And I just had a wee nap in the Meyrick in Galway, a lovely hotel, and when I woke up, I had the idea. It was there.
JS: So there’s a lot to be said for sleeping on it?
WNH: Oh, I think there’s a great deal to be said for creative procrastination.
JS: ..laziness. That’s why I never write anything.
WNH: Just put it off, just forget about it, don’t get, don’t get your guilt out too soon in the process, don’t let the inner censor trample all over things. Just go to the pub, go to the cinema, go to the coffee shop, go for a walk and forget about it, you know? Do the crossword. Do the wee mesostics that you can get on Twitter now.…put your brain, the bit of your brain that’s constantly telling you off about things, out of the picture for a bit and everything else will either resolve or not resolve itself. And you just have to live with the consequences. So I saw a book which wasn’t a single book, which was two books which were haunting each other, which were kind of doppelgangers of each other and not one of them was the dominant book. They were both in this kind of opposition. They were both in this dialogue. And it seemed to me that that was a kind of resolution of a problem I’d had for a long time about English and Scots, and comic and serious, and performance and page, and all of these kinds of oppositions. Because of course, you know, that that teaches us that when we’ve got these kinds of things which appear to be equals, these two ideas which appear to be opposed to each other, equally, it very rarely is a matter of equality. It’s usually the case that one of them is actually dominating the other in some more suspect power-based or political sense, you know? So, therefore, English and Scots. It’s never the case that those are entirely equal, is it? Male and female. There is, there are certain power structures which are underlying those apparently equal oppositions and so, it’s actually an interesting gesture to try and create something where there is an equality. Where the experimental and the mainstream are in a kind of tension, but it’s an equal tension rather than the case that we know to be. We’ve just had the TS Eliot shortlist and of course, there’s a certain kind of book on that list and there’s a lot of other kinds of books which are just not on it. You know? And that’s not to say that the books that are on that list aren’t marvellous ‘cos it’s a very good and strong year but we know the facts of that sort of situation, you know? So, I thought, when I woke up from my swoon in Galway, “There we go, I could do that. Can I persuade my publisher to do that?”
JS: That’s what was on my mind. How did you persuade your publisher to go for a two-volume collection of a peculiar kind? Did it take much to bring them round?
WNH: I think probably just sort of lying to them about it was the simplest way. No, not all. We had a good conversation. We had an interesting conversation about how it related to what interests him about my work and we kind of agreed that there was a continuity, that it was a kind of a logical development of the way that my books have kind of been doubling in a kind of amoeba-like fashion. They’ve been separating out into more and more parts over the years and so it seemed possible.
JS: Well, Bill it seems appropriate to conclude our conversation by asking you, if you would, to read something that you particularly like from one of your two Omnesia volumes, if you would?
WNH: Well why don’t I read the title poem which has that doubling built into it, in that it’s a dialogue between the poor poet and the figure of Omnesia. Now I should say that Omnesia itself is a kind of portmanteau word combing omniscience and amnesia, the idea that increasingly, knowledge is growing shallower. We think we know more because we can access more, but in fact our retention and our analysis of it is growing weaker and shallower. So it’s a state of knowing everything but remembering nothing which has both advantages and disadvantages as a way of describing the modern mind. So, Omnesia, as a personage, as a kind of personification, I see as a rather kind of strict and disapproving medieval allegorical figure, a female figure, rather powerful, and the poet, is a male loser. So the poem goes from one voice to the other voice which I shall try and convey by shifting in my seat. If I can do it that way round….
JS: Bill Herbert, thank you very much for your readings and your insights and it’s just great to have you as Dundee’s Makar. All that energy that you’re going to bring to this post. Thank you.
WNH: Thank you
JS: Thank you very much, Bill.
WNH: Thank you very much, Jim.
(Transcribed by Lindsay Macgregor)