Roddy Lumsden interview: Poetry, Kate and me

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RODDY LUMSDEN'S latest collection pushes no big ideas, but it's surely his best yet. Interview by SUSAN MANSFIELD

OF ALL THE THINGS ONE MIGHT expect to discuss over coffee with a Scottish (male) poet, couture dresses are not among them. But then not many Scottish (male) poets have spent time on a fashion shoot with Kate Moss.

Roddy Lumsden, however, was asked by top photographer Nick Knight to be a kind of poet-in-residence while he shot Moss in statement couture dresses for New York's V Magazine. London-based Lumsden was to write several poems for Knight's website, picking up on the theme of the shoot – wild flowers. One of them, "Bloom", would be read by Moss herself.

"I actually wrote that bang in the middle of the photoshoot," says Lumsden, still sounding surprised at the idea. "I always think I need quiet to write but it obviously isn't necessary. Kate Moss famously doesn't like the sound of her own voice, but apparently she spent five hours on the recording until she was happy with it, and I think she reads it very well."

As the shoot progressed, Knight upped the ante still further. Could Lumsden write a poem about Kate Moss herself? "Which she would see at the end of the day," he says, recalling his trepidation. In the end it was young Scottish designer Christopher Kane who provided him with a way in (Kane's ruffled, ripped dress was the talk of the shoot).

"I addressed my poem to him, working-class Scot to working-class Scot. It was the most fascinating dress. To me, it looked like a 1970s nylon sheet when it was on the rails, but when it was on, it looked astonishing. I started to have some sympathy for this idea of fashion as art."

Now, far from the glamorous world of couture, Lumsden and I nurse our coffees in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. This is the centre of his working world, a point of intersection between his various teaching jobs, on the doorstep of the Poetry Library where he is researching a new anthology. The price of That Dress would buy a lot of poetry books.

"Obviously some people will see doing something like that as a sell-out," Lumsden says. "But I enjoyed it. It was nice to get paid a good fee, but more than anything it was a rewarding experience. I've never done anything commercial where I've dumbed down in any way. You can adapt to do something you know will fit the bill."

This is demonstrated by the fact that several poems from the shoot are in his new collection, Third Wish Wasted, which will be launched at the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews later this month. One of the festival's themes is Homecoming, and Lumsden is one of a number of returning writers; though he has lived in London for more than a decade, he grew up in St Andrews, in the "town over the burn", the working-class housing development that flourished out of sight of the tourists, students and golfers.

He is sanguine about the much-hyped Year of Homecoming, which will be the subject of a lecture and discussion at the festival. "I guess I don't have such a strong sense of boundaries as some other Scottish artists and writers," he says. "It's not that I don't have political and cultural feelings about Scotland, it's just that I don't feel I'm away from home particularly.

"There will always be Scots who go forth for whatever reason, and it's not always because they have problems with Scotland. I came to England for relationship reasons, not for reasons of my profession or ambition. That's as likely to take people away as anything."

Lumsden, 42, attended the first poetry festival at St Andrews, a forerunner of StAnza, in the mid-1980s, while studying at Edinburgh University. (The organiser, Jay Parini, who now lives in the US, will return this year as a guest.) After graduating, he stayed on in Edinburgh, making a living of sorts by playing pub quiz machines and compiling word puzzles for The Scotsman, "until sudoku came in and I got the heave".

He won an Eric Gregory Award in 1991, and was included in Donny O'Rourke's influential 1993 anthology of Scottish poetry, Dream State, but it took until 1997 for his first collection to appear. "The Eric Gregory Award threw me," he says. "I thought: 'What do I do now?' Suddenly, from writing in my bedroom and showing it to one person, I had Faber & Faber asking me for a manuscript. It freaked me out."

He is cautious about embracing the label of "Scottish poet". "It's factual, rather than denoting something. For me, Robert Crawford, say, is a Scottish poet because Scotland and the various Scottish languages and Scottish history are central to his writing. They aren't to mine. I tend to write about people rather than place, and people are more universal."

His first book, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, was widely praised for its formal sophistication and wry streetwise intelligence, and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Writing in The Scotsman, Alan Warner said: "This is the poetic world of male guilt, of a smoker, a Villonesque drinker, a 3am Homer with an attendant and vicious intelligence … a brilliant vivisector and pathologist of contemporary relationships."

Like most poets, Lumsden prefers to draw a veil over the extent to which he mined his own experience, but admits to writing frankly in later books about relationship and mental health problems. In particular, his long sequence "Roddy Lumsden is Dead" draws on his experiences of mental illness, which affected him in his teens and early thirties, and which he describes as "broadly bipolar".

He writes in that sequence that: "A poet confessing to mental illness is like a weightlifter admitting to muscles," a typically wry take on the well-established link between poetry and mental illness. "I've always thought it's very important that if you're lucky enough to be in one of the only jobs where mental illness is not a stigma, you should stand up and say, 'Look, this is something lots of people go through.' I don't feel uncomfortable with people knowing those things about me."

Third Wish Wasted is a very different collection. It has an understated elegance, an oblique sophistication. It is also much less directly personal. "Perhaps I've been living a more settled life. I'm not sure I'd call it a happier book, but it's a warmer book, I think.

"When I first started to put it together, I wanted an ambitious book with lots of bravado. What has emerged is a much more modest, musical book with no big themes, philosophy or clever ideas. I think it's all the better for that. Every writer thinks their latest thing is their best. I'm absolutely convinced that this is my best book, and I'm more nervous about it than anything I've done since my first book."

He's worried about getting his book noticed in a crowded market place where bookshop buyers and reviewers are paying less attention to poetry. He is more confident of interest in America, where a number of the poems have already been published in the prestigious journal Poetry. He is, he says, barely disguising the incredulity in his voice, "one of their favourite British writers".

He also gives credit to science- fiction writer Neil Gaiman, whose comments on his own website helped bring his "lists, words and trivia" blog, Vitamin Q, to an audience of thousands. The blog, which Lumsden suspended "when I ran out of ideas", was turned into a book, but sales were disappointing. "Design problems and trivia overload," he says glumly.

Literary activities are now edging out trivia and puzzle-writing, though he still harbours an ambition to write the questions for the Round Britain Quiz. Look closely enough, however, and you can see the effects in the poetry. Some of his structures are so tight you suspect the puzzle-writer in him of setting himself a deliberate challenge.

And in the London arts scene at least, poetry is the new pub quiz. "It's very in at the moment," Lumsden says. "Quite often pop stars and TV presenters turn up at readings. You look out and there's someone from the Kaiser Chiefs, or Simon Amstell in the audience." And if that isn't proof enough, just ask Kate Moss.

&#149 A Pie & A Pint with Roddy Lumsden is on Saturday 21 March at 1pm in the Byre Studio Theatre, St Andrews, www.stanzapoetry.org

Roddy Lumsden on the future of Scottish poetry

Lumsden is currently editing a series of pamphlets for Tall Lighthouse, showcasing the work of 30 unpublished poets under 30 years of age, as well as compiling Identity Parade, an anthology of 85 British and Irish poets who published their first collections between 1994 and 2009.

He insists the genre is in rude health. "Identity Parade has got a much wider sweep of styles than these anthologies normally have, because I think we're at a time of great pluralism for poetry," he says.

"People are becoming interested in work which straddles different factions. Young writers want to be able to pick and choose what they do and not fit into a camp.

"In general, the poetry that's coming from twentysomethings is much richer and stranger and more musical than the poetry of the 1990s. And people like Dylan Thomas and Barry McSweeney are back in vogue because young writers are looking for stuff which is a bit wild and a bit weird, rather than what the previous generation is doing."

However, Lumsden is concerned at the dearth of emerging Scottish poets. No Scottish poet under 40 features in Identity Parade (a few, like TS Eliot prize-winner Jen Hadfield – featured in these pages last week – live in Scotland, but they are not native Scots).

And he points out that there has been no Eric Gregory Award-winner from Scotland in the past 14 years (the previous generation – poets such as Paterson, Burnside, Jackie Kay et al – picked up some 17 awards between them).

"There has been quite a blank patch. I don't know whether it's complete chance and that in ten minutes – like buses – there will be lots of them along, or whether it's a cyclical thing.

"A strong generation is often followed by a quiet generation, but it's not a direct reaction because people generally react to the work two generations above.

"Maybe once you get a generation which reacts to Burnside and Paterson and Jamie, you will get a stronger generation again."

&#149 Poetry Breakfast: Where are all the young poets in Scotland today? takes place on Friday 20 March at 10am in the Byre Studio Theatre, St Andrews