Obituary: Roddy Lumsden, Scottish poet, champion of new voices and quizzer extraordinaire

(Picture: Stuart Morton/Big Scotland)
(Picture: Stuart Morton/Big Scotland)
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Roderick Chalmers Lumsden, poet. Born: 28 May, 1966 in St Andrews. Died: 10 January, 2020, aged 53.

Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden, who has died at the age of 53, had a profound influence on the course of British poetry. A selfless champion and ­confidant of younger poets, a writing tutor and commissioning editor, events organiser, quizmaster and language innovator, he was responsible for the creative development of hundreds of writers over the course of 30 years.

Roddy was born in St Andrews in 1966, the youngest child of three after brothers Jimmy and Eric. His father Hamish was an electrician and played the drums in a touring dance band; his mother Betty (née Lumsden, but not related, as he was fond of pointing out) worked in the accommodation service of the university. Due to recurring outbreaks of warts on his ­fingers, his friends at Langlands Primary School nicknamed him Werty.

Between 1978 and 1984 he attended Madras College in St Andrews. He began his undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh in the autumn of 1984, graduating three years later with an MA General Arts. He specialised in courses at the School of Scottish Studies, at a time when Hamish Henderson was still on the teaching staff there. In 1985 Roddy met fellow poet Andrew (AB) Jackson, then studying English Literature; for the next six years they shared Edinburgh flats together, mentoring each other through the intense early stages of creative learning.

After graduating he supplemented his dole money by touring the pubs of Edinburgh and playing the quiz machines: he had an exceptional memory for general knowledge and trivia, and was also a crossword fanatic.

An Eric Gregory Award in 1991 led to his inclusion in the Faber Introduction 8 anthology. In the end it was Bloodaxe Books which offered him a ­publishing deal, and his first collection, Yeah Yeah Yeah, appeared in August 1997. It was shortlisted for the ­Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and early reviews suggested the influences of Simon Armitage, Elvis Costello, and Charles Bukowski.

Roddy moved to London in the spring of 1998, settling first in Stoke Newington. He attended monthly poetry workshops in the Bloomsbury pub The Lamb, alongside regulars Michael Donaghy, Maurice Riordan, Greta Stoddart, Sarah Wardle, Andrew Neilson, Paul Farley, Hugo Williams and John Stammers. His second collection, The Book of Love, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize in 2000.

The book that quickly followed, Roddy Lumsden is Dead, gave an account of what he described as depersonalisation disorder (DPD) and marked the end of his first creative phase. His work underwent a significant realignment when he began reading American poets such as Brenda Shaughnessy, Kathleen Ossip, Susan Wheeler, and Chelsea Minnis. This shift towards Stateside writers was reflected in his publications: he was included in a special Thirteen British Poets feature in the June–July 2004 issue of Poetry (Chicago), and would go on to publish regularly in the magazine thereafter.

In 2005 he took over the running of the “Wednesday group”, the writing workshop formerly run by Michael Donaghy at the City University, and continued in that role for the next ten years. That same year he moved to Blackheath, an area he would celebrate in many future poems.

In 2007, he was appointed editor of the Pilot pamphlet series, published by Tall Lighthouse. Given free rein to develop a list of writers under the age of 30, Roddy commissioned and published the early work of poets such as Emily Berry, Ailbhe Darcy, Jay Bernard, Vidyan Ravinthiran, and Sarah Howe.

March 2009 saw the publication of what is arguably his finest collection, Third Wish Wasted. The familiar Lumsden themes were there (food, male-female relationships, fables, lists, pop culture, all served up with a gourmand’s approach to word choice) but this time informed by his reading of those elliptical American poets. From that point on there would be no more comparisons to Simon Armitage.

In 2010 he became Commissioning Editor (Poetry) at Salt Publishing, with a remit to introduce new first-book authors to the list. In the main, he took on London-based poets of his acquaintance. Also published that year was Identity Parade: New British & Irish Poets, edited by Lumsden and published by Bloodaxe Books, a generation-defining 85-poet anthology.

The following year, Roddy’s commitment to the new was in evidence again with The Salt Book of Younger Poets, co-edited with Eloise Stonborough, featuring 50 poets born since the mid-1980s.

In 2013 he was interviewed for the editorship of Poetry magazine, following Christian Wiman’s departure – an indication of the esteem in which he was held at that time. The following year he became a regular team member on Radio 4’s long-running show Round Britain Quiz, representing Scotland alongside crime writer Val McDermid. They won it, in their first series together.

In January 2016 Roddy was hospitalised with a diagnosis of acute cirrhosis of the liver. In June 2017 he moved into the Manley Court Care Home, New Cross, and was supported throughout his final years by his brother Eric.

His collection So Glad I’m Me, published in August 2017, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.

AB JACKSON