Photo credit: Sandra Park | Interview by Zoë Brigley
“If I have an economy of language, it’s the result of twelve years of sleeves-rolled up, punishing labour… when I was younger, the poetry wrote itself. Now I’m lucky if I can write a poem at all!“
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You describe an area of Glasgow in this poem. How important are specific places for your writing and is Glasgow one of them?
Good reconnaissance work! Though it’s not altogether certain the place name is legit, and thus may not describe an area of Glasgow at all, but rather inscribe a name, like graffiti, onto said area, which was the initial intrigue in the name. Paltry evidence around its origin, as well as not being officially recognised or commonly printed on maps, suggests the name has a contingent existence at best, which of course all names do.
Place names last only insofar as their languages last, or the inhabitants of places retain the names. At worst, naming may have a dubious existence, and thus any association the place previously had with its name (e.g. heritage and/or environment) carries that same dubiety. That’s not always so bad, to be sure. Some place names ought to be re-evaluated, if not eviscerated without a second thought. I recall Santa Claus, Indiana, in summer, with its vacant Koch family air, and its frightening year-round effigy to Father Christmas himself, which haunts the entrance to the town as red as a warning. My wife and I, while moving from Florida to Colorado, decided out of some sick curiosity to visit the place, and all I can say is – you should go. It is a case study in vacuous American commercialism, and every thinking person should be mindful of the lengths to which the world’s super wealthy have lost all touch with reality. At least the great monarchies of the past facilitated a flourishing of arts and architectural wonder and educational development. What happened? When did the super wealthy become absurdly fatuous? Anyway, I digress. Go to Santa Claus, Indiana, with the express purpose of knowing that you know you should never go again. If it were forever erased from the map, the Midwest, the US, and the world, would be better off.
But assuming places are important, as I believe Glasgow has been and still is, its nominal layers and neighbourhoods are at a loss when the currency of their names are lost. A facet of existence simply plinks out, like a light bulb, a broader domino effect than felt in daily interaction. In Scotland, one is constantly confronted by brash unknowing relative to place: ‘Oh, Gàidhlig was never spoken here’, or ‘I don’t know what Sauchiehall St means’. If you live in Glasgow, you really ought to know what ‘Sauchiehall’ means. No excuses except such remarks are the result of ongoing knowledge loss relative to language that extend into the environment and the public arena to the detriment of culture. Moreover, it’s a significant disrespect to minority language groups who have already suffered centuries of persecution, and this is alarmingly true for Gàidhlig, from which the place name ‘Coille Challtainn’ stems.
On the flip-side, place-name mining has in some respects become a humanitarian past time in Scotland, as it has elsewhere. There may be just 50k people who speak Gàidhlig, but their numbers are dwindling and one form of recompense to them is to reclaim their heritage through the ‘larachs’ of place. In a tiny way, tiny poems like mine do just that. (For better examples, see the work of Alec Finlay in Aberdeenshire, or the Iona’s Namescape project.) The truth behind nominal existence doesn’t make it any easier to bear because we humans, being tender creatures, like to feel that we’re in control of our shared existence (we’re not – sorry, free-will folks, but there are just too many variables to account for with individual responsibility). We like to think there are material certainties to existence, ones brought about by meaningful decision-making and order – ours – but place names are a great indication of the opposite: disorder, randomness. For example, Glasgow.
We’re told it’s Brittonic in origin and that something like ‘green place’ is denoted. Green Place? Is that really all that meaningful? Almost anywhere in Scotland could have been called Green Place with equal validity. Furthermore, the name hints at just how far removed we are from Brittonic society – a culture long-lost to brutalist, brutalised Glasgow, which the Big Yin, a.k.a. Billy Connolly, once quipped would be ugly no matter how many times it was rebuilt. In the meantime, since the time is so mean, the best we can do is espouse Scott Hutchinson from Frightened Rabbit; that is, to ‘make tiny changes to earth’ and hope they persist.
Sorry. I def nerd out on onomastics and language. To answer your question, specific places are, at present, so important to my writing that I’d say they define it, though after I finish my first full-length (if I ever do) I plan on flitting the topic lickety-split like a bodhisattva on holiday and revisiting only on occasion for the good of humanity. No, Glasgow is not one of the specific places important to my writing, but I live in the city, so I suppose I should at least pay it lip service.
I enjoy the physical shaping of words on the page here. What poets influence you when you are writing like this?
So pleased you like the poem’s shape! It took me FOREVER to write the damned thing right – I think seven to eight months, give or take. Maybe that’s just me though (anxious, slow). The first time I encountered a break, or caesura, between lines in a poem was a reading of Anglo-Saxon verse, in particular The Seafarer. The metaphysical poets and then most pressingly Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill, still one of my favourite poems, showed me I could move lines around on the page. Nowadays everyone’s doing it: Kaveh Akbar, CAConrad. I came to CAConrad late in the game, sadly, as they’re fucking awesome. I wish I had read them younger in my years, but since I’ve been knee-deep in Amanda Paradise and The Book of Frank, let’s say for now the poem’s strong visual element came from reading them, although it’s quite different from their work, too.
Briefly, the poem’s shape hopes to represent an underground stop in Glasgow, one of two, I think, without a Gàidhlig name (the other being ‘Hillhead’). Sorry, I just checked. There are three. I forgot ‘Ibrox’! Anyway, anyone who knows Glasgow’s underground knows it’s a wee ring, hence the poem’s ‘curving’ shape. The stop lets out to one of Glasgow’s tower blocks, Dundasvale, in Cowcaddens, the official name for the underground and neighbourhood, whereas the Gàidhlig ‘Coille Challtainn’ is the unofficial name. The Gàidhlig is almost always the unofficial name even if the Germanic name is no more reasonable… (I should add, some have attempted, and failed, to derive a Brittonic origin for ‘Cowcaddens’, but in lieu of one, the current name is Germanic in sound and spelling. Of course.)
You have great economy of language which works well for this poem. Have you always been this economical with words or was that something you had to develop?
Cheers for that. Means a great deal coming from you. If I have an economy of language, it’s the result of twelve years of sleeves-rolled up, punishing labour, first imposed on me during my masters degree, and later a symptom of imposter syndrome… I won’t name names but let’s just say when I was younger, the poetry wrote itself. Now I’m lucky if I can write a poem at all!
Taylor Strickland (he/him) is a poet and translator from the US. He is the author of Commonplace Book and Dastram/Delirium, a PBS Translation Choice. His work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, New Statesman, TLS, Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Glasgow, with his wife, Lauren.
You can follow him on Instagram @taylor.strickland.arts and visit his website taylorstrickland.co.uk
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