Over a cigarette and a cup of tea he discussed the prospect of reading his poems, and I wondered whether he prefers hearing his poetry aloud or whether it is written to be read; indeed, whether he sees poetry as a visual or auditory art form. Jamie suggested that:
“The acoustic element is crucial for poems. There doesn’t seem to be a point in writing poems if you’re not thinking about the sound, the lineation, the rhythm – all of those elements are at the fore of the poem.”
“I mean, you don’t read it with your eye. It’s quite possible someone could read it a lot better than me,” he says whilst laughing. “I don’t care who reads it but it should be read aloud, and even if it’s read with the eye it should be sounded inside. The layout on the page is visual, yes, so it does have a presence on the page, but the layout is often indicative of auditory patterns.”
We moved on to the topic of translations; he recently won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize and the John Florio Italian Translation Prize for translating the poetry of Valerio Magrelli. When asked what attracted him to this task in particular, he explained that whilst in Italy he read The Embrace, the poem which the collection takes its name from, and that it “struck me immediately as going into English.” Although the process took around fifteen to twenty years to complete, Jamie described it as an “exciting challenge”.
Alongside Italian poets, he lists Seamus Heaney and Elizabeth Bishop as personal favourites. He recalled reading Bishop in his twenties, stating she “means a lot to me”, before declaring Heaney a “wonderfully exemplary figure… when I started writing he made it look possible to be beautiful and relevant.”
Since McKendrick’s careers spans more than forty years, my final question was the one I was most eager to ask: ‘what inspires you to write?’ In modest fashion, Jamie admitted that it’s “just a bad habit really … a compulsion … you feel bereft when you’re not writing,” before memorably concluding that, rather than his experiences inspiring his writing, his writing is what enables him to bring his experiences “into harmony”.
by Ellicia Pendle