Extract of an interview with Dr. Ian McDonald
(Extract of an interview with Dr. Ian McDonald, June 30, 2010, Georgetown, Guyana. McDonald is a prizewinning poet, novelist, playwright, columnist and editor; he has to his credit six collections of poems.)
Petamber Persaud (PP): It is not easy to assess the impact of books…it is not easy to assess the impact of literature on society and for various reasons, which we will talk about.
But every now and again a book will come along and demand our attention, ever so often a writer will come along and we’ll have to stop and take note of because that book, that writer adds to the continuous dialogue of life and living.
There are many reasons why people write. Why do you write?
Ian McDonald (IM): You are quite right in your introduction when you said that reading and writing is a big part of my life. I am 77 now and since I was a young boy of nine and ten I used to read avidly, and at school, my favourite subject was literature and here too I continue to read. As I continued to read I found I also wanted to write which is a natural transition – from reading to writing. So literature became more and more ingrained in my life. Of course, I am talking about more than 60 years ago. Literature has been a great part of my life since and a very important part, I must emphasise.
PP: You mentioned reading leading into writing. While you are reading, you are engaging the writer with your own thoughts. Tell me about that process.
IM: One of the things when you read, when you read something that impresses you, automatically your mind tries to assess and analyse why this is making such an impression. And part of that process, then, leads into saying let me see how this writer is trying to impress me – what he is trying to say and how he is going about it. Well, then, naturally, this goes into accepting that the process is important….. then, therefore, why do I not try it myself. Take poetry, part of my reading was poetry, not so much at first, when I was quite young, but as time went on, I very well remember the time at school, Queen’s Royal College [Trinidad], when I was about just over 14/15 when a book of poems came into my hand, can’t recall how, but it was a book of poems by Derek Walcott called simply Twenty-Five Poems, his very first book. And I remember reading that book quite well and being very, very impressed because a lot of the books I had read up to then were not books from the West Indies, in fact all the books I had read and studied in school were from abroad.
PP: English Literature.
IM: Yes, English Literature. Now here was a writer, a West Indian, a young West India… here was a book of West Indian poetry and this made an enormous impression on me and I remember thinking at the time…this is from people from around me, my people, West Indian…
PP: Able to produce literature…
IM: Yes – write books as well. And I think this was definitely one of the things that really gave me a nudge to writing myself. So the writing came from the reading, and especially I say, when I realised that it was not something from out there, from abroad, it was something of our own and that did inspire me, if you like.
PP: Now, let’s expand on some of the things said earlier – things I’d like to get over to emerging local writers who complain bitterly instead of focusing on their craft, first of all, write and write and write, honing their skill and of course, not forgetting to read and read and read….
IM: If I could just interrupt you there, it is very, very, important. If you want to write, whether you want to write professionally or if you just want to learn to write well, for the sake of writing well – and that in its own right is a good thing – to want to write well, to want to express yourself clearly and logically is a very great gift, quite apart from writing professionally. But if you want to do that, undoubtedly part of that is reading. Reading has to come first and reading has to be a continuous part of the process. I don’t think there is any writer, any good writer, who has not been a great reader as well. Reading is an essential part of the whole business of creating work of your own.
When you come to write, you are absolutely right, what happens then is that you must never be satisfied with your first efforts. I know a lot of young writers who aspire to write, who have this feeling which seems to be a universal feeling of being able to express yourself. But they think having written something that is the be all and end all. That isn’t it, that is just the beginning. You have to write and write and revise and write again and discard and write again. Writing is a hard, hard business, I know we are getting right into the midst of it now, but writing is not an easy business – to write well. Sometimes if you are lucky, you can write something and find that it stands on its own and is good and you don’t have to do much revision. But mostly when you write something, you need to look at it again, you need to revise it, you need to see how it can be better expressed and very, very, often, what you start with, which you feel that is quite good, by the time you really work hard at it, it will become very much better.
PP: There is a story you told me earlier which I think will be helpful to emerging writers about the writing of the ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’… how it was revised and rewritten over one hundred times….
IM: That’s an extraordinary story. Not long ago, they found a whole set of manuscripts of Coleridge, the poet, massive manuscripts in his handwriting of a wide range of things he had written….One of the things found was about a hundred different drafts of what ended up as the poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
PP: Wow. And that’s a long poem, a very long poem.
IM: It is. We all know the ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – is a wonderful poem. The fact of the matter is Coleridge didn’t get up one day and decide to write ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. He may have worked on it for years. As I said in his papers there are about a hundred different versions of the ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Now that shows amazing application. It just shows you how much hard work it takes to write something that is good, very good. There are countless examples of this, countless examples. T. S. Elliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ which became the most famous poem of the 20th century. It didn’t start out as ‘The Waste Land’ as we know it. It started out with many drafts and as a much longer poem which he revised. He then discussed it with his friends, particularly Ezra Pound, and by the time they finished, ‘The Waste Land’ as we know it as a published poem was an entirely differently poem from the start. For one thing it was much shorter. That’s another thing about writing: revision doesn’t necessarily mean adding and making something bigger and larger, it often means cutting out, to make it better. ‘The Waste Land’ is a typical example of that – it was a much better poem – the final version is much shorter than the original drafts. And a lot of hard work went into it.
PP: It is said that poetry is the purest of language. Another example is Martin Carter…
IM: Oh, yes, Martin Carter. Martin always used to tell me Ian, I have never ever finished a poem. He used to tell me that often. Then he uses this wonderful phrase I release my poems when I feel that I should no longer keep them to myself, I release some to the public but that doesn’t not mean I am finished with them.
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