“Poems are living organisms. It’s trying to revisit that precise and ferocious flash with as much emotional investment as you had at the time”
A young Michael Pedersen, backpack spread around spine, lurks in the departure lounge of the airport. He’s lost in thought, reminded of a year wandering the continents having preceded another; a horrendous twelve months in London as a qualified lawyer. Whilst knowing he’ll never happily return to the courtroom, caught in a state of flux Pedersen sits for a while below an ominous digital departure sign, mulling the huge decision presented to him.
After his flight number snaps alive on screen, in a split second he jolts up and through into the departure lounge, naïve that those footsteps would dramatically mould the rest of his life.
Fast-forward several years and Pedersen is tucked away in his office at Edinburgh’s Summerhall, the decision to venture to Cambodia rippling through his life in noticeable fashion. No longer a practicing barrister, the poet now holds court at Neu! Reekie, Scotland’s leading cabaret amalgamation of spoken word, music and animation, and with last year’s unfurling of Play With Me, Pedersen’s also got an accomplished and critically acclaimed first collection under his belt.
“Both Kevin and I,” he says, referring to Neu! Reekie’s other half (and Rebel Inc founder) Kevin Williamson, “We don’t like staying still.”
A knowing smile is cast before Pedersen continues.
“With Neu! Reekie, we’ve got this paradigm; of two poets, two musical acts and a film presentation, but we’re always trying to add new elements to it. We’ve been steadily growing for three years, now we want to make an impact outside of Scotland. I try to avoid the term ‘movement’, but I do like the word, because it’s all about the fact that it’s moving, rather than being cultish.”
Kinetic is an adjective perfectly suited to describe Pedersen, whose lips move as excitedly as he does across a room smattered with creativity; books, posters, zines and journals decorate the floors and walls (it’s a colourful enclosure he admits to recently being described as a “bachelor’s bat cave”).
“We’re trying to restructure everything at the moment, so we’re talking about pulling up the carpet and doing the floor.”
The room isn’t the only thing to be remodelled, as for the first time Neu! Reekie will venture to Manhattan, with two stops at the city’s East Village staple Sidewalk NYC for a Scottish showcase scheduled for later this month. Also set to feature are Teen Canteen, FOUND’S Lomond Campbell and Withered Hand.
Like his poetry, in person Pedersen fizzes with energy and metaphor, words like synergy and synchronicity flowing outwards via an electric brain, the poet more often finding a nexus between two topics of discussion than not.
A hour of his company is a dizzying yet enjoyable affair, with thoughts and stories spinning fast; attempts to match the pace of Pedersen’s rapid and arresting lexical outpour are not too dissimilar to trying to catch full sentences from the inside of a furiously spun merry-go-round.
“I was with nine other poets at a literary retreat called Cove Park, doing this experimental workshop called ‘Freeing The Poet’s Voice’. That’s where I first met Gerry Cambridge. We gelled together. There was even some weird exercises where I was rubbing his sternum.”
Rather than rubbing shoulders, hugging breastbones caused Pedersen’s first collection to be edited by one of Scotland’s renowned literary talents. “It was fairly calamitous over the eight days, but Gerry and I struck up a good friendship, and he later agreed to be Play With Me’s guest editor.”
It was a both a humbling and alien experience for Pedersen, though one that had a profound impact. “I’d read a lot of poetry and critical texts, but never studied poetry academically. I was aware of the fact that form wise I was a bit art brut. In a naïve way I’d released a couple of chapbooks which were well received, but they had minimal editing. So to have someone of Gerry’s calibre – who’s published and edited material for Douglas Dunn, Alasdair Gray and Seamus Heaney – to take the time and temperament to consider my text as seriously as he had done theirs, I felt elated”.
“What struck me more than anything else was that Gerry gave so much thought to the typography and the placement of the text on the page. He was doing something visually that was really inspiring. It was all these new considerations. It’s not necessarily that you’re changing the language, it’s just causing you to consider the sentence breaks and whether that number of words are necessary to convey that message.”
As with all editing processes, the dreaded removal of nurtured poems was inevitable, though erudition took the place of conflict. “I had given Gerry 150-odd poems and knew we had to get down to 60 or 70, so cutting it down was a necessity, though the editing wasn’t particularly litigious, as all the ones he honed in were poems that I – although fond of them – wouldn’t have considered the stronger pieces. I guess it only really becomes a contentious process when he wants one removed that you consider paramount to the collection. Ones you consider central, one of the spinal chord pieces.”
“It was a real zealous and exciting experience to be considered, to be cogitated by someone who I knew was far more erudite in these matters than me. To take time to explain to me why he was making the changes. All of a sudden I’m carrying a small tool set of skills and forms with me, post-editorial process, which I didn’t have beforehand. I almost felt empowered by it.”
The metaphors reign in fast.
“I felt like I was a pub brawler and came out an athlete at its end. You could see this drunken swinger trying to fight the athlete and it just felt toned, like lexically muscular, in the way the other poetry didn’t.”
And did friction between editor and writer ever surface? “At times Gerry and I would to-and-fro over some things. There were things he didn’t change, but he twelve times through different directions had caused me to justify what I had on the page. If it’s not as well reasoned and concrete to be impenetrable to hold up to questioning, the justification’s probably diluted. If anything the editing makes you more sure of what you plant down in the collection than anything before”.
“It was quite an edifying process, not self-congratulating but self-confirming”, he says, before chuckling. “Once you’ve rubbed a man’s sternum, the editorial process is milk and biscuits.”
Darting up to show some of the spines residing in a teeming bookcase, Pedersen laughs his attention span off as “very temperamental and very mood dependent.”
“Reading and writing are very temperamental things. Like reading, you won’t necessarily be able to write effectively in the period you’ve set aside for it. Sometimes it just thrusts itself upon you in the most inopportune moment. You have to make sacrifices to get that made”.
“Sometimes the way you use words is so simple and purified, it seems inconceivable to you that it hasn’t occurred to you to say them in that order before. Then two hours later, if I’ve not jotted them down, I’ve forgotten them. Lost.”
He admits he become “obsessed” with synaesthesia, a condition where the brain’s five sensory perceptions become muddled, which played a massive part in his travels during Cambodia.
“Cambodia became such a powerful thing. It gave me this whole new fleet of aromas; a whole new range of different colours. Colours I knew but they were crystallized in a different way in the sky. All of a sudden I just had this entire new palette of description at my disposal.”
Dominating Play With Me is Pedersen’s experiences in the war-ravaged country straddling Thailand and Vietnam, both viscerally and situationally.
“I was well aware of journalists heading over to record what it was like during and after the Khmer regime, and with some of the Cambodia poems, I felt a little fraudulent. I didn’t have to hone my literary arsenal, or learn any new language to frame it, because it was framing itself in front of me.”
“It was almost just about keeping a diary; a social narrative, incidences I’d see happening on the streets and the sounds and the colours that were emitted from those”. (This is evident in the collection’s flagship poem, as it begins, ‘Hello I Am Cambodia/ Who wakes every morning in a brilliant mood, as caskets/ Of mischievous light scorch soil/ Into mottled polka dots’).
“It’s the most complex country I’ve ever visited. 50% of its population were wiped out during the Khmer regime, and they were mainly the elders, those that could pass down the lessons of history. So you have a country where half the population are under 18. You’ve got this whole generation of people, almost this whole country, having to decide who the country is, what direction they’re going in. It was such an important time to be there, and to be principled; what you were taking from that and why. I wanted to make sure everything I recorded around me was distinct enough to make a historical snapshot of Cambodia during this time.”
Pedersen was essentially cut off from the world, living in a “converted tree house” which was challenging as he’s a “very social person, always absorbing stories.”
“It was the first time in his life where I had to live on my own, a period of reflection about what was yet to come.”
Hilariously, in Cambodia a lot of Play With Me’s content was typed on an old-school laptop plugged into a generator, and known to friends as The Beast. Pedersen would cycle along dust tracks – floppy disc in hand – to the nearest village to upload it. “Thankfully the internet cafes you’d cycle to weren’t too up to date, so they’d have computers with a floppy drive,” he cackles.
When asked if being effectively cut-off technologically proved to be his most productive period, the poet’s lips curl into a wide circle. “Oh yeah. By far. I was working on poetry every day. I produced so much content. I almost produced that entire book there… And another chapbook, and I’ve still got pieces from that period in time that are waiting to be developed.”
“It’s intimidating knowing that, with how busy I am now,” Pedersen frowns. “I’m already starting to think about residencies, somewhere to take myself away for a while.”
Technology infiltrates the conversation, and while Pedersen uses digital facets now integrated into our collective consciousness, he kicks off a cautious tone. “With Twitter and Facebook, intelligent threads are developing, about literature, philosophy and the like. But there’s a quote I read recently which really struck a chord. It said, with these you become a reactive creative rather than a purist creative, because you’re intelligently reacting to other people’s creations.”
“Then you’re intelligently reacting to other people’s reactions to those creations, instead of just creating something for yourself in its own self-contained environment. I do think you need to protect yourself from it; withdraw, hibernate almost, become active within yourself.”
A snicker then precedes, “We’ve got this policy at Neu Reekie… If you turn up with a Kindle and smash it with a hammer we’ll let you in for free. To this date no one has done it”.
Pedersen’s immersion into poetry happened after stumbling across Tom Buchan’s Poems 1969 – 1972. A mercurial Scottish poet, Buchan also resided in Portabello. “His words were powerful, they were aggressive, they were profane as well as petrifying. He was the first poet I read who completely confused me, and made think there were as many contradictions in him as there is in myself. He was also exploring language in a way that I’d never explored before. I felt there was a certain armoury to it. The proximity of the poems’ locale, in Portabello, intensified things.”
Yielding a signed copy of Buchan’s book, he beams, “When I read this there was no turning back”. He fractures conversation to powerfully recite the final stanza of his dedication to Buchan from his own collection, highlighting his idol’s struggle with mental illness, the late poet having drowned himself in a lake in Findhorn to stop the CIA infiltrate his thoughts.
The rooms fills with Pedersen’s pronounced vocal presence, as he booms, ‘It bends wits, brooding over/ What forces lobbied night sky to swallow/ Up a brightest star and how such verve came to plunge/ A rusty anchor into fierce waters’.
“It’s about this explosive, electric, all-powerful mind that felt the only way to save itself was to take such an action.”
Pedersen makes no attempts to conceal his own struggles, admitting a “big propensity to alcohol and drugs”, adding, “I’ve had a scary period with heroin and crack, and used a lot of narcotics. I’m aware that lots of things, be it drugs, coffee, cigarettes, I don’t have the button to turn it off. I have to be very in control of that”.
He confesses a mentor, whom the collection’s ‘Hello Bréon, it’s nice to meet you,’ is devoted to, first made him aware of this. While it is never said, he alludes to an ex-pat artist Scot living in America who’s achieved great acclaim and great success, and with his mention of heroin and his ties to Williamson’s Rebel Inc, one can only speculate the poet is referring to Irvine Welsh, a close friend of Williamson, whom Rebel Inc were first to publish.
“We discussed mechanisms, processes and being aware that sometimes I can’t stop these things, but ultimately it could’ve ended up a lot worse than it had.”
“Mental illness is often glamourised – the Syd Barrett-esque creative outpours – but it’s less like a shiny, beating broken heart and more like a pussy ulcer. There’s no rationale to how quickly and effervescently and important it [the substance's consumption] becomes. Two hours previous it wasn’t relevant, but now it becomes so belligerently important and gargantuan that it has to be dealt with in this instant. This is the the same process as poetry, I think they’re all inexplicably linked.”
Pedersen will read his material alongside Hannah Lowe at Scotland’s major poetry festival StAnza, where he’s familiarising himself “with a different crop of poems to those I’ve been performing of recent”.
The reading will focus more “on the the people in the poems than the sculpting of scenes - in that sense it’ll be slightly less strident. Testament to that is choosing the poem ‘Feathers and Creams’ as a flagship piece for the StAnza press page.”
“I believe this is one of the most accomplished poems in the collection and whilst it does lend itself well to an exuberant cadence, it’s more reflective and ruminative than much of my work.”
“Two of the character poems – Owen and Manchester John – have birthed sequels that I’ll be taking forward to publication this year; I’m hoping to unshackle these for the first time too. It’s an ideal opportunity to read new works alongside old favourites, especially when the pieces have a rooted fall-back and a contextualisation in previous poems.”
He says Paul Muldoon, Katharine Kilalea and John Bursnide are also on the hitlist, and a quote from the latter is mentioned.
Burnside spoke of writing poems as being similar to working with steel; as soon as words are written down, they become less malleable, as when “worked metal is plunged into a cooling tank”. While Pedersen understands this, he agrees more with late French wordsmith Paul Valery, who famously said “a poem is never finished, only abandoned in despair”.
“I often go back and change something about them. Poems are living organisms and all you can do is try and reflect that moment, try and make it as precise and intimate as possible. It’s just this flash; every colour, every sound, how I was feeling about that person, the relationship we had, what was underneath, the tensions we had. It’s trying to revisit that precise and ferocious flash with as much emotional investment as you had at the time. I see them as capturing a precise moment in time.”
Mirroring his previous statement about wanting to historically record Cambodia, Pedersen is asked if, hypothetically, he was to head back a few years past to the airport, as he stood below the departure sign pondering the forked road ahead, what would he tell his younger, more innocent self?
He kicks back in his chair, the eyes disappearing upwards as he traces the mind to seize a solitary thought amongst the galaxy. It’s a rare and momentary snapshot of calm, and tousling a messy nest of hair, he smirks, “You know what? I’d say bon courage. Good luck, because you’re taking something quite big on here…”
“And don’t forget your condoms.”
Michael Pedersen will perform at St Andrew’s Town Hall at StAnza on Thursday 6 March alongside Hannah Lowe.
Tickets can be bought here.