Peter Robertson is Associate Editor of The Mad Hatters' Review and was recently selected as Emerging Writer by the Emerging Writers' Network. His work has appeared in many publications including The Oregon Literary Review and is forthcoming in The Literary Review. He talks here about his life as editor, writer and translator.
Mark Thwaite: Firstly Peter, before we talk about Viva Caledonia, tell us a little about yourself.
Peter Robertson: Where to begin? I am a private person and have to admit that talking about myself is not my favourite pastime. I am a displaced Scot and left my country years ago, living in many countries, including England, Spain and Argentina. When I was eighteen I left the small Perthshire village where I had been brought up and made my way to London but, unlike Carlyle who headed to a different capital, I did not walk. Right now, I spend half the year in Buenos Aires and half in London (where I previously lived for many years) but I would like to start spending more time again in Madrid, where I also used to live. One day I will settle down but who knows where that will be. I guess at some point there will be a defining moment, a climacteric, and I will be forced to choose a more stable base. It is probably the case that at the moment I am caught up in the pursuit of this.
With regard to writing, I started late, about three years ago. I had worked as a linguist for the International Monetary Fund, and subsequently for the World Bank and a number of other United Nations organizations, and so I did work with language, but with a kind that was very specialized and elliptical. Although I have the greatest admiration for those who wield this kind of expertise-- it is akin to mastering an hermetic language-- it was a world away from the literature I wanted to write, and I was consequently prey to frustration. The watershed was when Andrew Graham-Yooll, the Editor of “The Buenos Aires Herald” asked me to write a review of Tununa Mercado’s “In a State of Memory”. I did have a block back then and it took me a long time to get this done, but I finally got round to writing it. Now I no longer have any kind of mental barrier, and I find writing easy. After publishing the article on Mercado, I started writing about aspects of Argentine culture for Chris Mitchell’s “Spike Magazine”. Over the last year or so, I have devoted much of my time to publishing translations of French and Spanish authors, including Ronsard, Paul Éluard and Rubén Darío, and later this year I will start translating the first of many books. I certainly don´t agree with Cervantes who said that “translation is the other side of the tapestry”; in fact, I am convinced that the best translations are transformative and can even be improvements on the original texts. But I know that the moment will come when I will write only fiction, and I already feel that I have many novels written inside my head. In the meantime, there are many other things I want to write—more criticism, more translations, radio plays, short stories, and writing about crime.
MT: Viva Caledonia presents new, unpublished work by those some deem to be twelve of Scotland's most important writers (Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway, Alan Spence, W.N. Herbert, Dilys Rose, Kirsty Gunn, Robert Crawford, Laura Marney, Tom Pow, Alan Bissett, Robert Alan Jamieson and Anne Donovan). How did "Viva Caledonia" come about?
PR: In a very real sense Viva Caledonia came to me. Last August, in the broiling heat of Madrid, I started translating some short stories by Juan José Millás. On the strength of these, I was later chosen as Emerging Writer by the “Emerging Writers Network”. Anyway, at the time I wasn’t sure where to send the texts but decided to try The Mad Hatters' Review, a multi-media review based in New York. I contacted Carol Novack, the Chief Editor, and herself a gifted writer, and she liked my translations, and decided to publish them. We later developed a correspondence, and a good rapport, and it wasn’t long before Carol asked me if I would like to join the team as “Foreign Editor”. My remit was to get together a multi-media feature with a Scottish theme, showcasing writers, an artist (Calum Colvin) and a musician (Peter de Moncey-Conegliano). Carol asked me if I could persuade a quartet of writers but the whole undertaking soon gathered momentum. The truth was that I wanted to produce something on a grand scale, and I set about approaching twelve first-rate Scottish writers. There were other gifted Scottish writers I could have invited but, for logistical reasons, I was forced to stop there. With regard to an artist, my first choice was Calum Colvin and I was delighted when he agreed to be featured. I also ran a wide-ranging interview with him in Issue 7. What a pleasure it was to work with that man given his complete dedication and unflagging approach to hard work.
MT: Why did you choose an online forum in which to present this work? What advantages has it given you do you think?
I didn’t choose an online forum for Viva Caledonia. As I mentioned, The Mad Hatters' Review is an online publication and, of course, the Internet is the only suitable medium for a multi-media review. But, opening this up, I am convinced that the Internet is the future and that it is only a matter of time before many publications wind up their print versions altogether. To date, I have only been published on-line although next year I am to be published in a number of print publications. But whether as editor or writer, I favour on-line publication, as this guarantees a readership that is more massive and international.
MT: Why did you choose these particular writers?
PR: I chose these twelve writers on the strength of their writing. That alone was my touchstone. Naturally, they all have different styles, and explore different themes, but the common denominator is their excellence. I was responsible for selecting these twelve authors who are certainly among the best contemporary Scottish writing has to offer. Of course, as I have said, there are other equally talented writers I could have invited. In fact, I was tempted to expand the feature even more but I was given instructions by the Chief Editor to call a halt after I had persuaded twelve of Scotland’s leading authors.
MT: Of your writers, who are particular favourites of yours?
PR: It is only natural that I should have my preferences. But I don’t think it would be professional of me to be drawn on that one. And why should it matter? Each of the writers represented is sui generis and excels in his, or her, own way. I would like “Viva Caledonia” to be considered as a whole. As an editor, I always aim to be even-handed and it would be ungracious, and even invidious, of me to start singling out one or two of these writers for special attention.
MT: I know that for you, Peter, Viva Caledonia is "yet another landmark in the articulation of a Scottish national identity", but is this a good way to read? Isn't calling these writers "Scottish writers" just a way of ghettoising them?
PR: Now that you quote that comment back at me, I have to admit that it could be construed as chauvinistic. But no, I don’t think that calling someone a “Scottish writer” is per se to ghettoize them, as you put it. Ghettoes do exist but they don’t tend to be nations. I hope it won’t sound too banal if I say, “You are what you are”. Let us take two Scottish writers from different historical periods, Robert Louis Stevenson and Muriel Spark—both lived abroad, Stevenson in places more far-flung than Spark, but any accurate study of either would have to look closely at the contexts from which they sprung. And it is a truism that the cultural values one inherits permeate one’s work and even give rise to it. Naturally, I am against flag-waving in literature as I am any kind of overt political agenda, something that vitiates much Latin American literature. Nor am I ever going to defend parochialism. In fact, I would contend that the best literature is a conflation of the local and the universal—one at no time negates the other. But it is a delusion to believe that you leave your culture behind, even in cases where you might try to renounce it, and you are in fact indelibly shaped by it. As I said, I live in several countries and, every time I travel, I am conscious of entering a different reality. Humanity is not a lumpen, homogeneous mass.
MT: Actually, I'd also like to ask the inverse of my last question! Don't you think that a number of these writers have cleaved to an identity as "Scottish" writers because they would drown in a larger sea?
PR: I don’t see any grounds for putting it like that and, in fact, many of the writers who appear in Viva Caledonia are well-known south of the border. I don’t know whether you are thinking of any writers in particular when you talk about “cleaving to a national identity”. Again I return to the same leitmotiv—it is important to know who you are and where you come from. It is a matter of identity and writing about what you know. Most of the writers featured in the “Viva Caledonia” are resident in Scotland, and all have spent long periods of time there, so it is only to be expected that they will consider their lives to be inextricably bound up with that country, and seek to write about it. When you talk about drowning in a larger sea, you make me think of Thomas Hood, the Dundee poet: “But I beneath another sea, and whelmed in deeper gulps than he”. But let us not be too cavalier when invoking this “larger sea”. Nationality apart, we must never underestimate the abundance of talent out there and the competitiveness of the markets. Also, we must be precise when defining success--are we considering it in purely literary or commercial terms, or both? Where, for example, do we place a succès d'estime, a work of artistic merit that has flopped commercially? Furthermore, success depends to some extent on freakish fate and literary arbiters can be capricious, so that a reputation can oscillate in a course of a lifetime. And then there are so many writers who set out to be international but drown in a flash. Adopting a mantle of internationalism is not enough—one has to have talent. Transcending “Viva Caledonia”, I am not sure whether it is the aspiration of most writers to get to the top as such but rather to be true to their imaginations, and carve out successful careers accordingly. Once the process of writing is shorn of its romantic associations, we can see that it is an intensely lonely business which calls for an absolute self-discipline and, even in a relatively successful career, there is a high price to be paid.
MT: What are you working on now?
PR: Over the next few weeks, my immediate priority will be to work on a couple of translations: a short-story by an intriguing, yet little-known, Chilean writer, which I will be sending to “The Yale Review” for consideration; and another poem by Maria Teresa Andruetto, an Argentine writer. In fact, my translation of Andruetto’s “Del Latin Recordis” has just been accepted by “The Literary Review” in the USA and my translations of two shorter poems have been published this week in “Apt Literary Magazine”. As far as “The Mad Hatters’ Review” is concerned, right now I am working on a voluminous English feature I have conceived, a kind of companion-piece to “Viva Caledonia”, entitled “Eclectic England”, which will be coming out in two sections, “Eclectic England I” and “Eclectic England II”, the first part in mid summer and the second in the early winter 2007. The feature is already looking very exciting and sixteen first-rate writers, whom I have invited personally, have confirmed that they will be contributing: Diran Adebayo, Patience Agbabi, Simon Armitage, Nicola Barker, David J. Constantine, Jenny Diski, David Dabydeen, Maggie Gee, Aamer Hussein, Gabriel Josipovici, Mimi Khalvati, Deborah Levy, Sara Maitland, Clive Sinclair, Iain Sinclair and George Szirtes. In fact, I have already received outstanding contributions from Patience Agbabi, Nicola Barker, David Constantine, Aamer Hussein, Gabriel Josipovici, Deborah Levy, Sara Maitland, Iain Sinclair and George Szirtes. I have taken on board the charge of insularity that has been leveled by some against “Viva Caledonia”, and in “Eclectic England” I am embracing inclusiveness, going for a feature that will mirror society’s multi-ethnic make-up. Agbabi and Adebayo are of Nigerian descent, Dabydeen was born in Guyana, Hussein in Pakistan, Josipovici is of Egyptian-Jewish descent, Khalvati is Iranian and Szirtes, born in Hungary, came to England as a refugee. I am thrilled that, so far as featured musician for Issue 8 is concerned, “Fitkin Wall” (the duo of Ruth Wall and Graham Fitkin) have agreed to participate. As soon as I heard their music, a beguiling fusion of harp and electronic music, I contacted them to invite them to appear. With regard to artists, I am delighted that Tom Phillips, the Royal Academician, and George Blacklock, the English abstract artist, have agreed to be featured, one in each section. So it is all coalescing and I am sure that “Eclectic England I” will be a fitting tribute to the summer, with more to come in the winter.
MT: What is your favourite book or books?
PR: Here is a woeful admission—I can’t find the time to read for pleasure. These days I will only read writers I am interested in commissioning, those I am thinking of translating, or work that is necessary background reading for critical articles I want to write. So all that I read is directly related to my editing work, or my output. Perhaps this approach may seem narrow but it is dictated my time constraints. As a writer, I think it is more important to write than to read. Of course, there was a time I read voraciously. In the year before I went up to Cambridge, I spent many months living in Norway and I did nothing else but devour books. I was alone for long tracts of time, sometimes for weeks on end, and spoke little Norwegian, so I turned in on myself. It was during this period that I read all of Ibsen’s work, and I enjoyed it greatly—each play tells a spell-binding story (it is interesting that, although he was a playwright, Ibsen claimed that he wrote primarily to be read) and I admire the fact that Ibsen was an iconoclastic writer, never afraid to challenge conventional propriety. Another Scandinavian writer I think highly of is Strindberg. In the year before I went up to Cambridge, and later at King’s, where I had the tendency to stray from the syllabus, I also read a great deal of Russian and French literature. I found Zola to be impressive and was fascinated by Rousseau’s “Confessions”. I would like to read these authors again but there are so many things that I want to write myself, so that is a pipe-dream. It is a pity that even the longest lives are short! Let me return to Ibsen. In his excellent biography, Michael Meyer mentions that, as an adult, Ibsen read little or nothing, only newspapers. I can relate to that more and more. Once I return to Argentina, I will be reading a lot of Argentine literature but my guiding principle will always be whether or not I am interested in translating these writers.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
PR: On a cautionary note, for me the enemy of good literature is obscurity which often masquerades as complexity—and many a literary charlatan hides behind that cloak. It is unfortunate that in the 20th century many writers, including those who should have known better, took us down this cul-de-sac. Even Eliot, a great poet when intellection was in equipoise with his lyrical gift and did not swamp it, was not exempt. I read somewhere that a publisher once asked him what “Polyphiloprogenitive”, the first line of one of his poems, actually meant. Eliot did not know. In any case, in general terms, we must be vigilant of those who would play games of one-upmanship with literature, using it as a device with which to make others feel foolish. Winding up, in a few days I will be back in Argentina and grappling with a completely different life. Come late June, I will be putting the finishing touches to “Eclectic England I” from the other end of the world, and from the winter. It will be a pity to leave the spring behind but it is time to be getting back and it will be intoxicating to head once again to my beloved La Cumbre to breathe some alpine air. With regard to future plans, I will continue as Associate Editor of “The Mad Hatters’ Review” and intend to follow up “Eclectic England” with an Irish feature. In this connection, I have already approached David Godbold, who is based in Dublin, and was the UK’s official 2005 General Election artist, and I am delighted to say that he has accepted my invitation to be featured artist. I am returning to the UK in the winter and will be launching my own Scottish literary review—which will also showcase artwork by Calum Colvin and other Scottish artists-- in early January 2008. I am delighted that Anne Donovan, Kirsty Gunn (in a joint enterprise with her sister, Merran Gunn, the artist) W.N. Herbert, Robert Alan Jamieson and Tom Pow have already confirmed that they will be contributing, and I am confident that this literary venture will play a vital part in a Scottish cultural ferment. I will just have to find the time to do my own writing interstitially. It’s been a pleasure talking to you Mark, and thank you for your interest, and also for galvanizing the literary world with ReadySteadyBook — I take off my hat to you!