It’s hard to tell from the unassuming exterior and corduroy trousers that Paterson is a writer who began his career playing jazz and rock gigs. Neither is it immediately obvious he’s won every major poetry prize in the UK, including the T.S. Eliot award on two separate occasions. An OBE came in 2008, followed by the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 2010.
Glass of white wine in one hand – he excuses the choice of drink, muttering “bloody beta blockers” – Paterson adjusts the microphone and begins to read in a quiet, reflective tone, drawing the audience in with verse that ranges from the comic to the positively bleak. Particularly memorable is his recitation of ‘The Forest of the Suicides’; a poem taking inspiration from the thirteenth canto of Dante’s Inferno, written in memory of Sylvia Plath.
Paterson came to poetry through a different route. Instead of pursuing further education, he left school to focus on a career in music, and after several years playing with local rock and jazz bands in his home town of Dundee, moved to London in the early eighties. There he spent much of his time taking guitar lessons and performing with improvisation groups. Writing, it seems, wasn’t an urge that came to him until fairly late on: “that’s how it works with compulsions like this; they’re kind of wound up, ready to go. It takes a certain convergence of circumstances before it kicks in and interacts. In my case I was 21, living in London, working as a musician, and I saw Tony Harrison on television which made a big connection; I was blown away by him. The density of what Tony was saying, and the emotion of the language was very striking.” Music is still very important to Paterson; he was a central member of the jazz-folk group Lammas until it disbanded in the early 2000’s, and continues to perform on the guitar.
Around the time of his move to London Paterson started to write, publishing his debut collection Nil Nil in 1993, which took the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. Six collections of poetry and three books of aphorism later, I wonder how he perceives the connection between the role of musician and poet: “these two things occupy the same physical space, so you draw connections between the two; they’re naturally expressive of the same temperament. The one thing I would say is that I think people get it wrong when they equate poetic performance with musical performance; the real analogy is to do with poetic composition and musical performance. You prepare for them both in the same way – you do your reading and your studying in the same way that you do your five-fingered exercises and your arpeggios, so that you’re prepared when it comes to the gig. A musical training also hones your ear. If an aspect of poetry is to do with the tiny calculations about the timbre and the heft of vowels, then there’s no doubt that a training as a musician is going to tune you into it.”
One of Paterson’s most recent publications is an accessible commentary on 101 of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. He’s adamant that the content of a poem is much more important than the form, but says that sonnets fascinate him because of their intrinsically human force. “If you could take it out of everybody’s head, give it twenty-four hours and it would be back again.” It seems the Elizabethan Bard’s form of choice is perfectly constructed; the length of fourteen lines constitutes an optimum length of text for us to absorb; it also adheres surprisingly closely to the Golden Ratio.
Paterson has held the position of Writer-in-Residence at the University of Dundee and is now Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews. In 1996 he was appointed Poetry Editor at Picador. I ask him if the experience of having to teach and edit other peoples’ work has influenced the way he approaches his craft: “Self-consciousness is the death of art…but later in a poem’s composition you need to be able to stand back and anticipate the condition of publication and to see how other people would read it; to make those final and often brutal revisions to the thing. You have to develop a sort of stereoscopic vision. One skill is technical graft, the other purely creative. I am conscious though that I don’t want to do so much teaching and editing – as has happened to friends of mine – that I lose the very basic childlike, primal feeling for the poem.”
Having moved between London and Scotland several times, travel is an understandably important theme of his poetry. The question of whether or not he regards himself as a Scottish poet provokes a strong response: “I see myself as a Scot, but just to think of oneself as a Scottish poet is utterly meaningless; I don’t think nationality has anything to do with art in that way. There’s no doubt that it influences you in as much as it’s part of your make up, but I think to call yourself a Scottish poet is utterly pointless. It’s accurate, but it’s the same as calling yourself a male poet, or a heterosexual poet, or a materialist poet; what does that mean? There tends to be this absurd attitude of self-censorship…but I think the notion of a Scottish poet is ridiculous. A writer’s country is his language, and I write in English. That’s as far as it goes.”
Most of his poems require a gestation period of around a year before they are ready for publication. I ask him how he manages to balance the jobs of university professor, editor and poet:"Really really badly." He responds "I don’t sleep, that’s my secret." before taking another slug of wine.
Paterson's most recent collection, Rain, is published by Faber (£12.99)