Interview: Robin Robertson, poet and publisher

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IT IS A fact of economics that few writers can exist by poetry alone. A day job is necessary and some jobs are more compatible with the muse than others. Being a publisher is thoroughly incompatible, says Robin Robertson, who combines a career as a poet with being deputy publishing director at Jonathan Cape. "It's entirely the wrong thing to have chosen to do, because they work in strict opposition."

That hasn't stopped Robertson achieving acclaim in both. As a publisher, he is credited with launching the careers of Scottish writers such as James Kelman, Janice Galloway, AL Kennedy, Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and others, earning him the title of "the godfather of Scottish literature", and a stable of others including Booker winner Anne Enright. As a poet he has received the EM Forster Award, and all three Forward Prizes, beating Seamus Heaney to the award for best collection for his last book, Swithering.

His new book, The Wrecking Light, four years after Swithering, suggests he is becoming more prolific. It's a longer book, and in the same period he has also produced a translation of Swedish poet Tomas Transtrmer and a new version of Medea. "Yeah, I never rest," he says.

Robertson's poetry is dark, strange, shot through with moments of illumination and savage clarity: a beheaded goat, its tongue and eyes still moving; a dying cat "leaking thinly/ into a grim towel". Kazuo Ishiguro has described his poems as "darkly chiselled... haunted by mortality and the fragility of life's pleasures". It's all there in the title of the new volume: illumination and destruction.

The Wrecking Light is also, Robertson says, "a very watery book", punctuated by streams, oceans and islands, and steeped in myths, from Ovid to the folklore of Scotland. Robertson "draws a lot of sustenance" from myths, primal universal stories, versions of which appear in cultures throughout the world. He also writes his own, "trying to give something back to such a nourishing tradition. I take some of the imagery and vocabulary from that mythic word-hoard of Celtic stories. The themes are the usual cheery ones: murder, rape, revenge, a kick in the genitals, diseases, witchcraft..."

If this all sounds dark – and it is – there are surprising moments of leaven, like the short poem which begins, "Giving a back-rub/to Hugh MacDiarmid...". "I just got those two lines, and I thought 'Oh god, what kind of warped imagination has delivered this nugget?' I just made a little squib, that's all it is. It was a found poem that fell into my lap. Maybe I should have just left it there. It'll make some people very cross, so it's probably worth it.

"I am conscious that I'm not a humorist, and my books are light on laughs, but I hope there's a little bit of lightness there, some celebration of the wonders of the world."

Though he has lived in London since the 1980s, Robertson's poetry is saturated with the spirit and landscape of North-east Scotland, where he grew up a son of the manse. "Wherever you grow up leaves a mark, particularly if it's a place as powerful as the North-east coast of Scotland. I spent a lot of time walking around Old Aberdeen, following the river out to the sea. Most of my time was spent plodding miserably along the strand and trying to have a great thought."

He describes his current status as that of "a self-imposed exile". "That can sometimes make you more Scottish. I've tried to resist becoming a flag-waver.

"On the other hand, I suppose I am a kind of internal agent in the belly of the enemy."

He never supported Scottish writing just because it was Scottish, he says. The emergence of what looked like a group of writers in the late 1980s and early 1990s was more of a coincidence, "just one of those great moments". But he did argue for a more inclusive attitude towards what London publishers at that time called "the margins". "The margins started at Hatfield, Derby, somewhere like that," he says.

The writers he nurtured have establish international reputations, but Robertson is critical of the tendency of contemporary publishers to judge writers on the success (or not) of their first book, pointing out that AL Kennedy and Ireland's Anne Enright wrote for 17 years before they started winning major prizes.

His picks for 2010 include Bill Clegg's memoir, Portrait Of An Addict As A Young Man, "a most powerful and moving story of a young man's collapse and freefall into crack addition, a young, good-looking New York professional descending to the pits of hell", and a reworking of Homer, The Lost Books Of The Odyssey, a debut by American Zachary Mason which he says recalls Borges and Calvino. "That's what's interesting me at the moment, but tomorrow it could be anything else. That's where the continuing excitement of publishing lies." v

The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson is published by Picador, 8.99

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, February 14, 2010.

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