Robin Robertson: ‘Writing poetry has very little to do with the intellect’

The Scottish poet and editor on defying conventions of genre, the elusive nature of what he does, and the importance of external validation

Robin Robertson is an acclaimed poet who has won all three of the Forward poetry prizes. His latest work, The Long Take, a narrative poem, is set in the years immediately after the second world war. The story unfolds in New York, San Francisco and, most importantly, Los Angeles, and follows Walker, a traumatised D-day veteran from Nova Scotia, as he tries to piece his life together just as the American dream is beginning to fray at its edges. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize and, last month, won the Goldsmiths prize for fiction, awarded to works that “open up new possibilities for the novel form”. Robertson also works as an editor at Jonathan Cape, where he publishes, among many others, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Oswald and Adam Thorpe.

When you come to look back on this year, and the fact that what you took for a poem has been so celebrated as a novel, what will you think?
That it’s all been a terrible accident? It is rather dreamlike. But this confusion over genre. I’ve been asked about it a lot. It is a long narrative poem; I don’t want to apologise for that. However, it’s also sui generis. It has prose in it, too. It’s to do with how you propel narrative; with how you make the reader pay attention to particular aspects of the story. Writing it as I did allowed for more control over some of those techniques.

You’ve also said that, as you wrote, you didn’t know what you were doing…
That’s my other answer to the same question. It’s true. I was just aware that I wanted a bigger canvas. I wanted to address subjects the lyric form does not allow for, really. My poetry has tended to be examinations of the human in the natural world. I’ve always neglected the city. In The Long Take, I’m trying to go back to the ambivalence I felt when I moved from Aberdeen to London in the late 70s, to the odd sensations of the seething metropolis. There are the usual excitements: escape, anonymity and glamour. But the flipside is loneliness and fear. You start seeing all the things the city tries to hide: the squalor, corruption and crime. In the poem, the city is almost a character. It’s certainly an adversary.

Did your nerve ever fail you as you were writing?
Well, I had the advantage that most people don’t read my poetry anyway, so I wasn’t worried about having an audience. I also had a clear sense of the terrain of the book. I knew it had to be set in America: I’ve been travelling to Canada and the States since I was 20. Once I’d made that decision, there was the question of when it would be set, and that was self-evident: I wanted it to be at this pivotal moment in American history when it had the best music and the best films. So, things were clicking into place. Then I got my character, Walker. He had to have a psychic wound, so it was easy then to figure out that he was an ex-serviceman who’d seen and done terrible things in the war. That he had post-traumatic stress disorder and the attendant drink problem.

That pivotal moment: could you say a little more about it?
The US was at its strongest at the end of the second world war. Having faltered during the Depression, and again with the forced entry into the war after Pearl Harbor, the country was now morally victorious and economically untouchable. But it was at this point that the American dream started to fail. Deeply traumatised and exposed after the war – with the catastrophic loss of insular security – it was now paranoid about communism and the atomic threat, and riddled with corruption, organised crime and social and racial division. The “Land of the Free” that had been built by émigrés and refugees was now swinging to the far right: towards populism, authoritarianism, and nativism. There’s a note at the back of The Long Take that points out that, in the 50s, Joseph McCarthy’s legal adviser was Roy Cohn – later the friend, mentor and legal adviser to Donald Trump.

To be a poet is a strange thing, isn’t it? Was the urge to write poetry embarrassing to you in the beginning?
It is an odd thing to own up to. I certainly didn’t go around talking about it. I’ve always thought that writing poetry has very little to do with the intellect. It’s not something one can explain and chat about very easily: certainly not about the making of it. It’s very resistant to explanation. It comes from a place that is occult, in the sense of being hidden. It attends to some of our deepest anxieties and hopes in the same way that dreams do.

What poets do you read?
Yeats, Basil Bunting, Geoffrey Hill, Michael Hofmann. But I read so little poetry these days. I’ve got all this to read [gestures at the piles of manuscripts on his desk].

Does your day job in publishing feed your own work in any way?
No, I just need the salary. You can’t live from poetry. It’s always been my line that this job is entirely counterproductive. I can’t go home at night having spent the day editing a novel and turn to my own work, because if I’m any good [as an editor], I’ve got somebody else’s cadences in my ear. But Cape has been wonderful in allowing me this leniency. I go off for sabbaticals to somewhere absolutely solitary and silent, and I wait to get back in the zone.

How do your authors feel about your recent success?
I think they’re either trying to pretend that it hasn’t happened, or that it will never happen again! No, really, most of them have been very generous. I have wonderful authors.

What was the last great book you read?
There are so few great books. I don’t suppose I’m allowed to mention one of my authors, but Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is extraordinary. I love Patrick White, but no one reads him these days. He’s very politically incorrect.

What do you feel about prizes now?
On balance, they’re a good thing. If you win one, they bring you new readers. But they’ve taken on an excessive prominence in our culture, and readers perhaps pay too much attention to them. External validation is important and, if that comes from your peers, it’s even more welcome. But they’re often uncomfortable, and gladiatorial. It’s not a fair way of judging art.

The Long Take by Robin Robertson is published by Pan Macmillan (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.19 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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