This is an edited transcript; the video of the complete interview can be accessed by clicking the above image. Alice Tarbuck’s review of A Wild Adventure and Concerning the Atlas of Scotland is available HERE.
Alice Tarbuck: Good morning. On behalf of the Dundee University Review of the Arts and the Dundee Literary Festival, welcome to the Interview Room. Today you’re going to be talking a little about your latest collections, A Wild Adventure and Concerning the Atlas of Scotland. Could tell us a little bit about Concerning the Atlas of Scotland?
Tom Pow: Concerning the Atlas of Scotland was the result of a three-month residency at the National Library of Scotland as the Bartholomew’s Writer-in-Residence…. I was based in the mapping department for three months and had access to the Collections, and help from experts there.
AT: John Bartholomew… in the collection, you interact with his diaries. Who was he?
TP: John Bartholomew was one of the Bartholomew family of mapmakers… He’d really advanced the mapmaking within the firm; he was also a particular favourite of Karla Baker, the Bartholomew’s Archivist. (That’s really an example of how the process worked … Karla would interest me in… [for example] an aspect of Bartholomew’s work or I would seek advice on something that I was interested in. Then I took up her passion and asked more about him.) [For Bartholomew] … they had [a] diary that he’d written which was a cross between a personal and a work diary. It spanned the time from when he was small, going right up until… his son died in the First World War; and then it ran out. [Shows photo] That is John Bartholomew and you can see it’s a very striking photograph…. Well, we were very lucky to begin with. Chris Fleet, the senior Map Archivist, laid out some when we first arrived on one of these huge map tables… [that he thought] would be of interest to us. One of these was the “Blaeu Atlas”, which is on cover of… [my] book, a seventeenth century atlas of Scotland – very beautiful to be able to turn the pages and to look at that. Another one that was of interest… was a nineteen eighty-three Soviet map of Edinburgh.
AT: I wondered what that was. How did that come about?
TP: The Soviets, in the Cold War, had forty thousand people working in their mapping department. And their maps were more up-to-date than Ordnance Survey maps…. In fact, every Russian Embassy had somebody attached who was responsible for mapping. Quite often they would arrange fake picnics near installations that were of interest to them and engage locals in conversation. The map of Edinburgh… had… important buildings [that] were colour coded; road widths were [also] given, road surfaces, heights of bridges. It was said they could guide a tank to your front door – they knew which way to go! And yet… I couldn’t find my way around this map at all because of the Cyrillic alphabet… just kept on, you know, skiting off the surface of it. I had to use an ordinary map to find Princes Street on both of them, and then plot my way back to the house where I grew up.
AT: We think… [that a map is] such a visual, universally accessible thing that is not at all reliant on language but obviously the Cyrillic is a barrier… [can I] ask about… accessing maps through poems – if that’s a good guide in…? What’s the experience of writing about maps?
TP: Well, I think all maps are metaphors, aren’t they? Because… you cannot represent accurately… every blade of grass; you need to be selective. Obviously, place-names are very evocative and I think maps also are evocative because they… encode memory. My line is that maps… predict experience and encode memory. If you’re looking at a holiday map, you’re looking at the places that you’ve been and the places that you’re excited to go, and after you’ve been, these places become memories to you. So they’re very evocative. I think the other thing with maps, because they’re metaphors, is not everything gets onto a map…. [J B Harley] talked about utterances and silences – that there’s a rhetorical aspect to a map, [that]… an utterance is anything that gets on the map, [whereas] a silence is everything that doesn’t get on the map… For example, if we look at the map round Dumfries, on the poem, “Considering the Atlas of Scotland”, the castle gets on – the castle’s an utterance… Castles, churches, buildings like that. They’re utterances. But there’s nothing about the ordinary people who live round and about – they’re silences, basically. The whole idea of utterances and silences was of interest to me and, actually, was an aspect that I found retrospectively with A Wild Adventure because, of course, one of the justifications that the invaders gave for taking over all of Australia was that it was terra nullius: there was nothing there. It was all silence. If nobody’s doing anything with it then it’s ours.
AT: And that brings us very neatly on to A Wild Adventure which follows the story of Thomas Watling, sometime forger and adventurer. Could you tell us a little bit about him?
TP: Thomas Watling was born in seventeen sixty-two, I think. He was charged with forging guinea notes which in today’s money [is]… roughly sixty pounds. He was charged with forging guinea notes and he had the option of being transported or being hanged. He chose the first option; he… was transported to Australia. On the ship going… he and another guy, Paton, foiled a mutiny; they thought they would both get off because they’d foiled this mutiny. Paton got off; Watling didn’t… he was adjudged to be a valuable member of the new colony because he could paint and he could illustrate. On the first fleet going out to Australia were fourteen officers on board who had publishers’ contracts and their work all needed to be illustrated. Watling was to paint everything they shot out the sky, pulled out of the sea and plucked from the ground.
AT: It’s a really interesting position because he very much documents all of the new botanical and zoological discoveries but under a degree of duress. These beautiful things were being made but not in a very happy way; how did you reconcile that?
TP: Oh, absolutely. He was made to paint these things in the way that other convicts were getting made to dig ditches. But he had a pride as an artist. He had an idea of himself as a cut above and he would sign his paintings T Watling de lineat: “Thomas Watling did it”; “drew it”. The man who was in charge of him, Surgeon General John White, wrote a very testy letter sending off these illustrations saying that on publication, the name of the artist may be left out. But Watling kept on putting his name on things, so there was self-respect as an artist, even though he did describe himself as being… passed around and used like a utensil. [Another thing]… that was remarkable about him [was that while] he wrote very disparagingly about the Australians… he drew them in a way that people could recognise who they were. He would draw these portraits of men and women and then show them to people, and the people who knew them recognised them. That sort of giving a local inhabitant their individuality; recognising their individuality, was very rare in Colonies in the eighteenth century.
AT: Absolutely. And in a funny way, what you have done, as we talk about him removing his signature, is really give him back a platform and a voice and a sense of individuality. He’s much more than just a criminal who was shipped off. One of the really interesting things about this book is that it contains sections of his letters, it contains actual text by him. How do you find that balance between his words and your words in the same book?
TP: I wanted to give something of him because, like I say, there is this sort of contrast between what he thought he was doing and what he was doing. He was terribly disparaging about the people and… about the whole enterprise. That’s where the title of the book comes from; he said something like, “I consider just a wild adventure.” You know, like worth nothing. [Yet] he [also] showed that he was pretty wrong there. So, yes, I wanted to give something of his voice…. We know so little about Thomas Watling. The images are there so I wanted to have the images; I wanted people to see that he was a considerable artist and I wanted whatever of his voice was there…
AT: What’s [also] interesting about [reading your two poetry]… collections in tandem is that they are both, to an extent, about adventures, about journeying, about the places that life might take us. Are poets drawn to journeys and exploring what journeys might mean?
TP: I think so… I think Tolstoy said something like, “All stories are either about somebody leaving a place to go on a journey or somebody’s been on a journey, arriving in a place.” So, I think there’s obviously a metaphor – clearly, journeying through time and through experience, and making sense of these experiences. And one of the things that interested me most about Thomas Watling is how you make sense of such experiences as he’s had. I mean obviously there was no post-traumatic stress. But [here]… is somebody who’s been wrenched from his background, sent away across the world…. he saw pretty horrible things there, then worked his way back. He worked his way back to Dumfriesshire where he wasn’t really able to make much of his life, as far as one can tell. So how do you make sense of that? How do you make that into a story that people can understand and sympathise with? People who’ve never been out their own backyard really?
AT: Well, that’s really interesting because one of the things that Douglas Dunn says on the back of the book is that it’s a very complicated, risky venture to write a poetry book that’s a single narrative arc rather than a collection of different bits. And obviously these two are quite different in that respect. [Can you say something about your experience of]… writing a kind of long, single narrative?
TP: … it was twenty-five years that I was interested in him [Watling] and thinking that I’d like to write something about him. At first, I thought I would write a radio play, a monologue… then I thought, “No, that wouldn’t work.” I decided on poems through a kind of distrust of narrative. I was teaching a course in storytelling at the time… and once you get into storytelling, everything seems to come within story. It becomes this all-enveloping thing. It fills up gaps…[in the] narrative, you know…. I wanted to be kind of a bit more honest than that… and so I thought… go in and trust particular moments, existential moments like, “Yes, I’m sure he must have felt that here”, and “I know he was here then.” So… that’s how I started. I started off writing lots of these short poems and then I laid them out on the floor and then I put them into some kind of order. Of course, you can’t get away from narrative; you’ve got to make a narrative at some point. But often, when I told people what I was doing, they would say, “Oh, it sounds like a great novel.” “Oh, it sounds like a great film”. [But] that’s not really what I’m doing, [nor]… what I wanted to do. I wanted to isolate moments and to somehow show in the book that I wasn’t pretending what I didn’t know. Sometimes I myself am commenting on Watling; sometimes Watling speaks for himself; sometimes I feel he’s like my eyes seeing things wherever he is.
AT: As a sort of final question, because both of these books are about, to some extent, journeying and maps, I was wondering… if you have a favourite walk or favourite excursion around here that you enjoy?
TP: Well, I live in Dumfries…. there’s a forest near Dumfries called Mabie Forest and I’ve run round it so many times during all kinds of seasons – spring, summer, snow on the ground, trees falling over with wind and I love that run. That kind of four mile run that you can extend. But, as one of the poems in the book shows, I went over on my ankle about three years ago and I haven’t been able to do it since. So there we go.
AT: What a shame! Well, I hope that you make it, maybe in the Spring there’s a feeling that it’s time.
TP: That would be nice…
AT: Thank you very much indeed, it’s been fascinating.
TP: Thank you very much indeed for talking to me.
Click on the picture below to hear Tom Pow reading at the 2014 Dundee Literary Festival.