How did you first engage with poetry?
It must have been early. My mother read to me from books of nursery rhymes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, that kind of thing. As a family we kind of put a premium on memorizing snatches of poetry, old sayings, rhymes. My mother grew up in Aberdeen in Scotland, where the Doric dialect of Scots is spoken. There are a number of poems and ballads in Doric, jokes, funny sayings. The agricultural historian Ian Carter correctly points out that the dialect is “particularly rich in vituperation.”
When my grandparents came to visit us, my grandfather would just start declaiming poetry out of nowhere. It was strange and wonderful. I particularly remember these lines from “The Battle of Otterburn,” a ballad chronicling a medieval battle on the English-Scottish border:
But I have dreamed a dreary dream,
Beyond the Isle of Skye;
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I think that man was I.
This was a man who was born on a farm, for most of his life drove a lorry, and ended up as a porter in the University of Aberdeen medical library. I believe he had been given poems to memorize at school. Years after he died, my mother showed me a sheet of paper in his handwriting. It was a poem in Doric about a boy who made a whistle out of a twig. It was so good. I thought he wrote it! It turned out it was by a poet from the early 1900s. I don’t know if he wrote it out completely from memory or copied it from a book but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the former.
Anyway, all this to say that I felt a connection with poetry really early on – and not only a connection. A reverence. But I didn’t dare write it for my own enjoyment until I was a teenager.