Love, Zen and Writing  
  Malta-Bound Kevin MacNeil interviewed
  See also: Kevin MacNeil in Malta  

Leading Scottish writer 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 free).

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 (zen meditation) 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 American.

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 work:  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 - with zen. 

            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 life.

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 "faith,"  -  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 metaphor.

            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. 

words, seahorses

i 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 saxophones

© Kevin MacNeil

When I write, I am beachcombing, I am diving, I am voyaging. 

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)



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