Zen and Writing
|Malta-Bound Kevin MacNeil interviewed|
|See also: Kevin MacNeil in Malta|
Kevin MacNeil, who placed first in
last year’s edition of the prestigious Tivoli Prize for Young European
Poets, will be in Malta between 26 and 31 July, 2001, for a series of
workshops in creative writing, a public discussion on cultural identity
and a literary performance. Kevin MacNeil has been invited to Malta by
Inizjamed, in collaboration with the British Council, as part of its
creative writing project called “Gżejjer”.
The four workshops will be held between every morning
at 9.30am between Friday 27 and Monday 31 July at the MITP theatre in St.
Christopher’s Street in Valletta (courtesy of KKU). The public discussion
on identity will take place on Friday 27 July at 8.00pm at the Bay Street
Theatre (entrance free), and the literary performance will be held at the
University (M.A. Vassalli Conference Centre - Gateway Bldg.) on Tuesday 31
July at 8.45pm as part of the Evenings on Campus festival (entrance
Adrian Grima interviewed Kevin MacNeil about his
prize-winning book of poetry Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides
(Canongate, 1998) and about writing in general.
Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides is the proud winner
of the prestigious Tivoli Prize for Young European Poets for 2000. But how
has it been received in Scotland?
Responses to my work have been - so far, gratifyingly favourable! I
had no idea what kind of reaction the book would get when it was first
published. Obviously I hoped it would do well (it took a long time and a
great deal of effort to write). It was not particularly widely reviewed,
but it has sold very well - mainly due to word of mouth and I'm pleased
about that. But I had no idea that it would win a European literary prize!
I find it amusing - but not surprising - that its greatest recognition has
come from another country.
I'm quite sure that there are people who do not like my work. Gaels, for
example, can be very traditional and there are some people who do not like
Gaelic poetry unless it is in a traditional, singable form. But I want to
add to the Highland literary tradition, not rely on it.
Zen. Undeniably, here is a sense in which certain Scottish writers
have tuned in to zen. I feel distinctly uncomfortable when I read of
writers who have no actual experience of zazen
writing 'zen poetry' simply
because it is a convenient bandwagon. This happens, I fear, in Scotland,
just as it happens elsewhere. But those Scottish writers I admire for
their grasp of zen would include Neil Gunn and Alan Spence. Another
Western zen writer I like very much indeed is Lucien Stryk, who is
Some readers have noticed an optimistic vein in Love and Zen in the
Outer Hebrides. How do you react to that?
I am cheered that readers have noticed an optimism in my
I have never thought of myself as an optimistic writer.
Literature, of course, feeds off fighting tensions, and I have
always found it more natural (and, admittedly, more discomforting) to
explore the negative aspects of formative experience.
Hence my writing cannot ignore the drownings, the love affairs that
weren't, impossible love achieved and lost, the cultural and personal
injustices...the sheer contingency of everyday life.
I have tempered these broodings -
in my poetry, just as in my life -
An example. Last
summer I spent some time in Catalonia in a coastal village called Lloret
de Mar, ostensibly writing a novel, but actually lazing around on a beach.
I have written before about how the sun, life-giver, and all of the
stars in their sharp, glimmering beauty, the little pins that hold up the
night, the universe--are constantly radiating cancer. That which we need to exist kills us. Moreover, I remember lying on that beach thinking about how
the sun, then, is like love--warm, vivacious, necessary, universally
attractive... and ultimately painful.
This thought moved me to write a poem ("Lloret de Mar") comparing
love to sunburn.
This, of course, is not a hugely optimistic thought.
But I'll find myself, then, going back to the words of Shunryu
Suzuki: "Everything is just a flashing into the vast phenomenal
world...because you think you have a body or mind, you have lonely
feelings, but when you realize that everything is just a flashing into the
vast universe, you become very strong, and your existence becomes very
meaningful." And I shrug my
raw, peeling shoulders.
Hopefully, then, you are right and some measure of zen wisdom is
distilled from even (or especially) the most punishing of experiences.
I often say that a week I spent on Ch'an retreat in Wales some
years ago was both the most difficult and the most rewarding week of my
Could you say a few words about the power of poetry and how your zen
beliefs relate to this?
The poet's use of power.
This is an ambivalent prospect.
On the one hand, poetry is very seriously undervalued in Scotland.
(Odd, given that Scotland's literary heritage is such that it
genuinely ranks among the best in the world.)
When I sit down to write, I have no agenda; but, because
zen is an integral part of me (it is not my "belief," it is not my
it IS my understanding, it IS the all-encompassing), then I feel
fulfilled if I can attempt to write about zen.
There are, for example, many zen references buried (somewhat
mischieviously) among my poems.
I believe that the zen experience exists within everyone and that any zen
text will, far from being dogmatic or didactic, hopefully go some way
towards evoking that real zen thing, that pure, irresistible source,
suchness in itself, the suchness of the full and shining moon.
The sea is a dominant feature in your poetry. It is also a powerful
My 'human landscape' is actually a 'human SEAscape', because I was
born and raised on an island (and was therefore always surrounded by
water), because we spend the first nine months of our lives surrounded by
water, because we need water to live, and because the sea is the ideal
metaphor for the human mind. Indeed, I think this is the nearest thing we
have to a perfect metaphor.
Like the mind, the sea is deep, vast, mysterious, partly fathomable
(but partly unexplored), and has many moods. The sea can sometimes
surprise, ideas can spring up naturally, elegantly, like dolphins leaping;
thoughts surface, drift, arrive, near-random, as flotsam and jetsam to the
shore. There is also the
hazard of going too deeply into your own mind:
there is an inherent danger in this, just as diving entails the
physical risk of the bends.
The sea is a fluid treasurestore of images. The seahorse, for
example, is, to me, a tiny emblem of perfection.
dreamt i was the seafloor and you were the weight of the ocean pressing
down on me,your quiet words of love in my ears now and again, golden,
elegant and strange, like seahorses, like grace-notes, tiny floating
© Kevin MacNeil
When I write, I am beachcombing, I am diving, I am
In Malta you will be taking part in a creative writing project run by
Inizjamed called “Gżejjer” (Islands). How free do you feel as a writer
living on a small island?
Freedom. This is a complex issue in a country that isn't. And yet -
and yet, when I face the blank page, I cannot help but feel that writing
is the most liberating discipline. Writing is a fine antidote to the
claustrophobia an insular upbringing will impart on the mind that is even
remotely sensitive. I have had limited spells of being able to drift with
the clouds and float with the water, and this is something I would really
like to expand on - perhaps combining travelling and writing some time in
the future. Rootedness - a sense of belonging - is an abiding theme, of
course, in Celtic literature and Lewis will always be home. At the same
time, however, I like the zen notion that where you are is home, that
there is no point in hurrying because all that you need is here (wherever
that might be).
Thus, while the contemporary Scottish writer can certainly feel (should they choose to do so) that their freedom is limited, the private communion between writer and page is limitless as the sky (the real sky, the imagined sky). Another freedom that literature affords (and one which I relish) is the freedom of readers to interpret a text as they see fit. Since I first started having works published, people (mainly Gaels) have asked me quite specific - personal, even - questions along the lines of 'Who is this character based on?'/'When did this happen?'/'Is this poem about so-and-so?' etc etc etc. And I am quite proud of the fact that I have never answered these questions. It is, I believe, up to the reader to make their own judgements (provided they acknowledge that these are not necessarily definitive interpretations, that they are not attributable to the author).
This interview appeared in The Sunday Times of Malta (22 July, 2001)