Lamping For Pickled Fish

Lamping For Pickled Fish

Today 4Word are very proud to announce the launch of our 8th pamphlet Lamping For Pickled Fish by the inimitable poet, Beth McDonough. We were hooked by the title from the word go and the contents do not disappoint.  Beth’s poems are richly layered feasts – This is poetry straight from the jam-pan –  zesty and brazen – and it’s language that’s on the boil. Words are combined in delicious ‘texturesharp’ compounds; nouns become ‘loched’ to verbs; Anglo-Saxon soundscapes are mashed up with the pith of Doric……….Many of the ingredients may be familiar – teabags, cutlery, brambles, marmalade – but here they are rendered wonderfully strange. Language is on the move and nothing is sacred,….  (Lindsay Macgregor)

Lamping For Pickled Fish is available now via or from Beth herself at a cost of £5.99 (plus p&p) and is a sheer treat for all the senses.  

When did you begin writing?

In little ways, I suppose I have always written, and words came into my visual work more and more. I was beginning to grow a small body of work and when I enrolled at an evening class led by the late Jim Stewart at Dundee University, I knew I wanted to do more. I asked Jim’s advice, and to my surprise he suggested I study for a Master’s there, under his direction and that of Kirsty Gunn. That was the real beginning of change.  I continue to be grateful for all I learned there, and for the establishment of a very exciting creative community in Dundee, which still develops and nurtures my work now.

Are you mainly drawn to writing poetry or do you also write prose?

Early on in that time, I wrote a good many short stories, but Kirsty Gunn said your prose wants to be poetry! I reckoned she was being kind…but indeed, it has gone that way, although sometimes I think I should try a short story again, to push myself in other, hopefully healthy directions, I never seem to do that. I’m reminded of the great Willie Rodger, who was regularly asked why he didn’t explore more printing methods than his beloved linocutting. He promised he would, yes, he definitely would, whenever he found time, and had explored all that he needed to do with lino.

 I review for DURA, which is always a refreshing contrast and complement to poetry. I’m always happy to accept a book I know nothing about, and whether it appeals initially or not, the reviewing process ensures that I persevere. That has great rewards.

When and where were you first published?

It was but a haiku, and in Dundee Writes, a lovely publication which is, alas no longer with us. Then again, really I had two poems published in a Scottish Schools’ anthology when I was 8. I don’t know if many other people like to leave a forty-plus year gap in their publication history!

Can you describe your journey to publication?

I had the great joy of working with Ruth Aylett on our shared pamphlet Handfast, where her poems reflected on her late mother’s dementia, as mine considered my son’s autism and learning and communication difficulties. This was a marvellous process, and as someone who has had the good fortune of having poems published in many places, the nature of how a collection builds and is sequenced was fascinating.

However, I was determined that whatever I did next would not mine my son’s life in that way. I write about many things, and for his sake and for mine, I wanted something very different. Bit, by bit, the sequence developed. I have a bit of a thing about not sending work out quickly. Generally, I like to give my poems at least a six month spell in a dark file, before I send them out (and I’d like to thank Helena Nelson of Happenstance, and Gerry Cambridge of The Dark Horse, who have both spoken very wisely on that matter of maturing poems). In turn, that waiting for the poems to work together, for me at least, has been the right way to go.

When and where do you write?

My first drafts are invariably longhand (and sometimes I misread my own handwriting. I am a huge fan of the intriguing typo). I write in my kitchen, which is perhaps my favourite place indoors.  Invariably there is something in the stove, or some handmade paper or similar oddity drying above it. Minimalist, it’s not.

Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

I read poetry out loud first thing… maybe just two or three poems at that point. Even just one. Then, my own thoughts and words need fresh air. If I can go for a walk, run, cycle, or swim in the Tay, I return to the kitchen table and write. If time doesn’t allow that, even a quick circuit of the garden to find out what’s happening there does the trick. I’m fortunate, in that I’m interested in so many things. There’s always too much to follow up. On my return to that old table, there’s an ear worm.  Words act like magnets, don’t they? Sometimes they come colliding, and I note them where I can, but if you can call it a method…that is my process.  I may write the poem half a dozen times or more, but I don’t type it up until several hours later (or more than that if we are on holiday, or out of our usual ways). On the screen, a different kind of editing happens, and keeps happening, usually for about a month. Then I hide the poem, and look at it afresh, six months later. It’s funny how the very thing I’ve been twisting with, and know to be wrong at the writing stage, but just can’t fix, acquires a different nature half a year on.

Do you think your style has changed over time?

Yes, I hope it’s become a little braver, less needy of explanations, and more reliant on the poem’s own music and directions.

What writers influenced you and which poets do you continually go back to if any?

Perhaps all the usual suspects! I can never re-read Heaney enough. Every time his poems offer something new. MacCaig too. He’s always a revelation. Les Murray’s ability to respond to everything, and so brilliantly, never ceases to amaze me. Emily Dickinson’s work is as fresh and deceptively challenging as the moment she cut up her ‘gorgeous nothings’.

Of those poets who are still with us…Robin Robertson, John Glenday, Liz Berry, Jen Hadfield and Mark Doty are inspirational. The Caribbean seems to be producing great riches. Kei Miller, of course, but I believe Tanya Shirley deserves to be much better known. If there is a finer funeral plan than her poem ‘Edward Baugh, When I Die’, I haven’t read it yet!

There are far too many wonderful poets to name.

Every single one of that Dundee crit group (named in my thanks) is a poet I admire hugely. I’m honoured to share those Monday evenings.

A last little call too, for the nameless Anglo-Saxons, whose riddles continue to be a well of inspiration. My favourite way to find my way into a metaphor is to write and AS-patterned riddle, before the poem ahead. Sometimes the riddle works better than the intended outcome. That’s fine.

What are you reading now?

Another poet who really deserves to be on that list above… Sinéad Morrissey.  Strangely, though I have read much of her other work, I haven’t yet read Parallax in full.  I am amazed by her output. Absolutely beautiful, perfectly crafted and always right. I like a great deal of work which has emerged from Northern Ireland, and Colette Bryce is also particularly wonderful.

By contrast, I’ve recently finished Jay Bernard’s Surge, a very timely consideration of tragic patterns in civic indifference seen in Black History in the UK since the Thatcher years, with the echoes leading to Grenfell Tower all too well-exposed.  It’s such a strong work, but I was left wondering, as I often do, reading poets who identify primarily as performance poets (and no, I don’t want to add to any notions of that great divide!) if a conventional book is necessarily the right outcome. These are powerful poems, which merit considerable re-reading, but oh how I’d love to experience a genre-defying performance from Bernard!

After a recent cycling visit to more northern parts, I’m also appreciative of the light historian Tom Devine is shedding for me in his excellent book The Scottish Clearances. Novel-wise, I’ve just started Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. Already, I’m gripped.

What advice, if any, would you give to an aspiring poet?

Read, read, read! Read everything you can, and aloud as much as you can. Don’t confine yourself to what you know and think you like. Read brand new work, re-read lines you have always loved. Read the ancients, read the classics, read the work you think is probably going to annoy you. Read work in standard English, read poems in Scots or in any other language or dialect you can. Read work in translation, and if you can, read some of that aloud in its original language. Don’t rush too much to be published. Try to enjoy your journey.

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