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Interview with Edwin Morgan

EDWIN MORGAN IN CONVERSATION
with Marshall Walker

On 7 October 1999 Edwin Morgan was proclaimed Poet Laureate of the City of Glasgow. This
is the first time the title has been used in Scotland.

On 8 October an interview between Edwin Morgan and Marshall Walker was filmed by Picardy
Productions at Morgan's home in Glasgow. The interview is the basis for a television
documentary feature about Morgan's life and work. The following text is extracted from the
footage.

Edwin Morgan's
Collected Poems (1990) and several other volumes of his work are
published by Carcanet Press.
Demon (1999) is published by Mariscat Press.

Marshall Walker is Professor of English at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.
His books include
Scottish Literature Since 1707 (1996)


MARSHALL WALKER: It's a special pleasure to be congratulating you on becoming the first
City of Glasgow Poet Laureate. How do you feel about that
?

EDWIN MORGAN: Well, it was an interesting surprise. It's something I see as possibly leading
to a bigger sort of Laureateship for Scotland itself. It's okay having a laureate for a big
city like Glasgow or Birmingham - I think they have one too - that works out reasonably well,
I think, but it would be much better if it was for Scotland. With the new parliament you'd
think they might put their minds to this eventually, just because the so-called UK poet
laureateship is simply an English thing and it doesn't really work in Scotland at all. They've
never taken a Scot or a Welsh or Irish person for it, so I think there's quite a strong case
for having a laureate for Scotland - they may call it laureate - I think no one is very fond
of the word. Perhaps we can find a new term for it.

Can you think of a Scottish word?

Well we've got a First Minister, why not a First Poet?

How do you feel about the new Scotland?

It's not a new Scotland yet but I think in many ways things are stirring. It's partly political
and partly cultural and it's a mix of the two. Although it's not an independent parliament - it's
still tied to Westminster - it does exist and it will have some effect. It also has some
possibility of extending its operations if people want to do that and I think even just the fact
that it's there makes one think of the situation of Scotland vis-à-vis what's called the UK
in a way that hasn't been very much thought of in recent times. The possibility of big change was
probably necessary but it's an initial situation and it could go in many directions. One looks at
it with interest and some hope but it's not by any means something that's fixed and you can't say
we now have a parliament, so we now have a new Scotland. We haven't got a new Scotland yet, but I
think the signs do point to quite a big change.

Do you think that with this degree of independence there might be some sort of growth like
Irish prosperity? Business has poured into the Republic of Ireland because there were incentives.
This has made Ireland materially prosperous but it's also strikingly a country that respects its
culture and its arts
.

Yes, yes, but it is an independent country and that's the nub of that kind of question.

You think we must try to become completely independent?

Yes, yes, I do, quite strongly, yes.

Do you feel that there is already an increase in national self esteem in the country?

Yes, I think so. There are plenty of doubting Thomases around and plenty of criticism of the new
parliament which has done certain things in a clumsy way and so on, but I think that has begun to
happen.

Does it help to proclaim Scotland a Celtic nation? Do you think this might lead to greater
links with other Celtic countries? Do you think that we might draw closer to Ireland, for
example
?

Well, this is already happening. There are Scottish-Irish or Irish-Scottish bodies in existence
already. But this Celtic thing is certainly not the whole picture of Scotland. Scotland is only
in part a Celtic nation. If you go back to origins there are other things that were there. The
Norse were there, the Picts were there, the Anglo Saxons came in pretty smartish as well and we
don't speak something that relates to Celtic, we speak an Anglo Saxon or Germanic tongue, most of
us, a very small pocket of Celtic being spoken, and not in a very healthy way really. It's
surviving, but not very strongly. Not as strongly as Welsh. So it's a bit misleading to call it a
Celtic country I think. It's very mixed and perhaps it's hard to find any one word to describe it.

You've projected yourself and your readers into the future in your science-fiction poems. Now,
with the celebrated millennium, some people seem to think that the future is just about here, a
kind of threshold. How do you feel about the millennium
?

I don't feel it's a threshold. I think 'twentieth century' has still a much more interesting
ring about it than 'twenty-first century' and I see it as a continuous process really. The most
remarkable things have been happening all through the twentieth century and they are still
happening if it's Dolly the sheep or men giving birth. Some of the things that seem to be science
fiction probably will happen in the next century but I don't see it as being in that sense a
great watershed. The main thing that would make the twenty-first century important as a
millennial century would be if space travel got a real fillip again, if people land on Mars,
which they actually could do. Now it's quite feasible, it's just a question of money. That's the
kind of thing that I myself would probably want to write about, but again it goes back to Gagarin
and the sputnik in 1957.

Your version of Marlowe's Dr Faustus is touring the country now. It's a story about a
man who goes to hell because he sells his soul for science. What sort of judgement are you
making
?

I was trying to retell the original story as a moral tale - don't dabble in forbidden things or
terrible things will happen to you. That's what its final chorus says. I've cut that part of the
chorus and given a new chorus at the end. I've made it much more the tragedy of a seeker after
knowledge who may or may not have gone to hell. At the very end Faustus's body is discovered by
the scholars who for the most part think he's gone to hell, but I make the last scholar say we do
not know. Think about this man, think about what he was trying to do. Perhaps science will lead
to bad things, but think of the good things that are possible.

So it's not attacking science, even though I've got the seven deadly things like the
seven deadly sins - that science has produced. This is what the modern scene produces and what
Faustus has to think about, but I'm not saying that this is all. I'm trying to say watch out,
these are terrible things that have been produced by scientists but nevertheless you don't stop
science and technology just because of that. So in defence of the future I use the word green in
the Epilogue:

His story like a lightning-flash invades
The dark heart of complacency, and we
Who watch the darkness settle down once more
Remember, and will remember, those green thoughts
That wait to break through stone where Faustus sleeps.


Faustus is a bit of a demon, isn't he, and I think that's perhaps one of the reasons that
you're attracted to him, because in a recent book,
Demon, you give us twenty poems along
the lines of the sort of thing you say in a poem called 'The Fifth Gospel':

'I have come to overthrow the law and the prophets: I
    have not come to fulfil but to overthrow.
It is not those that are sick who need a doctor, but those
    that are healthy. I have not come to call sinners, but
    the virtuous and law-abiding to repentance'.

It seems to me that your
Demon book is very much in the spirit of attacking the
law-abiding.


You're perfectly right, so he's a real demon in that sense.

So this is the spirit of revolt in which you've ventriloquised your demon in twenty
different sharps and flats. What are these demon poems saying to us beyond just revolt? What are
you trying to do to us, Eddie
?

Oh, there are a lot of things going on here. It would be very hard to sum it up because each
poem gives a separate little adventure that the demon goes through and he has various things to
say about them and they don't just fit into one formula at the end. It's really very complex in
the sense that although a demon is usually thought to be a fairly bad character who would do
terrible things to us and better to be avoided mine has very good things to do and to say.

Give us an example of a good thing a demon says.

It's a Blakean thought. Good is bad.

Why?

Just because it leads us into various kinds of false directions and various complacencies and
also perhaps various cruelties.

You've been commissioned to write three plays about the life of Jesus. If you haven't quite
sanctified your Demon, are you about to demonise Jesus
?

Not entirely, but it will be my Jesus. I start off from the position that Jesus was an actual
person he's not like King Arthur or Beowulf, he did actually exist at a certain time and place,
and the evidence for this is watertight apart from the gospels altogether. So, what was this
person like, living in Palestine under Roman occupation?

I've only written the first play, The Early Years, and it only goes up to the period when
he's tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. So a lot of it is about his family life. He had
brothers and sisters, of course, and I bring them in as well as the father and mother, and I give
him various adventures which he doesn't have in the Bible. I take him to Egypt. The usual
translation as 'carpenter', or carpenter's son is now thought not to be correct. 'Tekton' probably
means more something like a builder, and I think it is generally accepted now that very probably
he and his father were sent to various places to do building operations of some kind -
construction workers if you like, and we know that people from Palestine did go to Egypt quite
frequently for things like that. I take him to Egypt as a builder and give him various adventures
there, and bring him up against Egyptian civilisation and Egyptian ideas, although Egypt was
also under Roman occupation at that time, so there's still this shadow of Rome over everything.
And I'm bringing in a theme that relates to the Roman Occupation, the theme of the Palestinian
or Jewish zealots. One of his disciples was a zealot. I think he was very much attracted by
these ideas himself, and had a great struggle to overcome his feeling that he was there to
liberate Palestine. And I make one of his brothers a zealot who has his own group of what you
might call freedom fighters, or something of that kind.

I'm certainly not demonising him - I'm presenting him extremely sympathetically, but in a
different sort of way. I'm trying to make him less namby-pamby and more human, so that I give
him sexual adventures as well as spiritual adventures. The spiritual thing is going to be there
all the way through, very strongly, but I make him have an affair with a Greek woman, whom he
meets in a much more sophisticated town in Palestine than the Bible tells us about. He came from
Nazareth, but only four miles from Nazareth there was a place called Sepphoris - why does the
Bible not tell us about Sepphoris? - which was a very sophisticated city, with a big theatre,
marvellous shops, a splendid forum, a very educated place and I've no doubt at all that he went
there, and probably many times.

A bit like Glasgow really.

All right, a bit like Glasgow! So I give him an adventure there, and I make him watch a
performance of a play and he meets this very attractive Greek woman with whom he has an affair,
and also it turns out later there's a daughter. She's called Helen and the daughter's called
Anna. I chose the name Anna because it can be either Latin or Greek or Hebrew. She's the daughter
of the whole area. And I want to bring that back in the second play. He feels guilty about having
done this, about having a daughter and left an unmarried mother in a different place, but I'm
going to bring this together in the second part.

How do you deal with the Virgin Birth?

There are some things that I've left deliberately in an area that can be taken in different ways.
I don't regard the birth as a Virgin Birth really, I'm not taking that line, but the way that I
bring all the characters together, there's maybe an awareness that it's something that might
happen, but I'm not emphasising the supernatural element at all.

When you were 70 you proclaimed yourself 'gay'. How should that affect your readers, bearing
in mind that I suppose it's statistically true that most of your readers would be heterosexual.
Does this matter at all? I ask the question on behalf of thousands of people who have become
Morgan fans. How should they think about this when reading your work
?

I think it's left to them to read the work as they wish. If they're interested in the fact
itself, then perhaps they could read it in a slightly different way. If they're not they can go
on reading it as they read it before. I don't think it affects that at all. Because many of the
poems are coded, they're hidden, they're secret and can be taken as heterosexual if you want to
do so. So I don't think it affects that tremendously.

It's bound to make some difference, and I don't know quite what the answer to your question
would be, you would almost have to ask people and find out what their reactions were. And of
course it did bring in the possibility of writing much more open gay poems, which I did. And
again that has a slight problem I suppose, with readers who are not inclined in that direction
and perhaps not even interested. I got a bit more activist I think after I'd made that confession,
and I felt I had a sort of duty not just to the whole generally heterosexual public, but to the
smaller public of gay persons, which is a fairly large minority worldwide, a substantial minority.
So I felt that I could write some much more open poems which would interest them and would help
me make a case. If heterosexual readers were reading these openly gay poems, it might make them
think more about the whole subject. Like the one I wrote called 'Head'. Very outspoken and very
improper, but it's not meant to be directed just at the gay public, it's meant to be directed at
everybody. As I say at the end, 'I brought that head back here for all', which is a strange thing
to say, but I really hope that people will be able to take it on board.

Your Collected Poems ends with a poem called 'Epilogue: Seven Decades'. In the last
verse you talk of going through a beaded curtain into the future. You say:

The beads clash faintly
behind me as I go forward. No candle-light
please, keep that for Europe. Switch the whole thing
right on. When I go in
I want it bright, I want to catch whatever is there
in full sight.

On 30 June you were told that you suffer from an incurable disease. How did you react to that,
and what does that prompt you to think may lie ahead, beyond the beaded curtain
?

Well, being told that was obviously a shock, partly because I'd always been so healthy before.
It certainly does make you think about questions like 'how long have you got?' and the medical
profession just won't tell you. They make vague remarks about that, but they don't really tell
you very much in the way of prognosis. And once you've got that into your system you carry on
very much thinking that you're going to live for a long time, it may not happen at all. That's
the way that I've got round to thinking about it now. One of the doctors said it might be
anything between six months and six years. I said to myself, well I'll take the latter option.
You do obviously think about your latter days and you have some dark thoughts about that. But in
the main I've found I'm quite capable of having very positive thoughts about it. Perhaps just
because you may not have many years left it acts like a kind of fillip to the imagination and I
find I've been writing quite a lot recently.

What do you think you might find on the other side of the beaded curtain? I ask that question
because you've said in various contexts that you're not a believer, and yet you're very interested
in the Bible. Once or twice you've said 'I'm not
really a believer', and I always think
that 'really' is a bit of a qualifier. So do you have a belief? Is there anything beyond the
ultimate curtain do you think, or have you ruled that out
?

I don't know. Even the Pope doesn't know, does he? I mean nobody knows. I think 'believe' is a
very difficult word, and I'm not sure what it means. I don't 'believe' that there's anything
beyond the curtain, but I don't know and I might get a surprise. I think that's the only way I
can take it. If I think as logically as possible of all the possibilities, I think that death is
simply annihilation, but I don't know if that's the case. Having been brought up on
Christian belief, you always have a lingering feeling somewhere in your mind that you might get
a nice surprise, or maybe an extremely nasty surprise.

But I still feel that this business of the candle-light at the end of 'Seven Decades' is
important. Is that bit clear in the poem? The contrast between the candles and the big switch-on
of electric light? If there is anything beyond the curtain I want to see the whole thing. I don't
want anything like those Europeans who are always going into the public square holding candles
for some terrible thing that's happened to their country - I hate that kind of thing. I would
never go into George Square with a candle.

You would go into George Square with floodlights?

I would go into it with floodlights, yes. I think so.

Well, whatever your own beliefs may or may not be, it's clear that your city believes in you.
Your city and your country at this time must salute you.


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