Rachel McCrum is a poet, performer, and workshop facilitator. Originally from Northern Ireland, she lived in Edinburgh, Scotland between 2010 and 2016. She was the first BBC Scotland Poet-in-Residence, and Broad of the cult spoken word cabaret Rally & Broad. She has taught and performed in Greece, South Africa, Haiti, and Canada, and toured her first book, The First Blast To Awaken Women Degenerate (Stewed Rhubarb Press), across Ireland, Scotland, and England in 2017. In Montreal, she is the director of the bilingual cabaret Les Cabarets Bâtards. Her poetry has been descibed as “irreverant, heart-wrenching, rallying” ... “soulful and yet defiant.” Her poetry makes its own stage, fiercely oral and yet also vulnerable, wrestling with questions of voice, displacement, movement, politics, feminism, family, and home.
I did, and I loved the work of Paul Muldoon and Sylvia Plath (worlds apart). For Muldoon, there was “Anseo,” which spoke to me about Ireland and Northern Ireland, and how things had been, and where things were. Poetry gave me ways to read and talk about things that were not talked about at home. With Plath, there was “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “The Applicant” — most of the Ariel poems. That taught me how to think about female anger, about the roles that we are handed down — and how to fight them.
I always wrote — and read — a lot: I was one of those kids who would sit up with a light under the covers, killing one's eyesight. When I was around 16 or 17, I was publishing in places like the school magazine, and other anthologies. Crucially, I also had the chance to take some workshops with established poets — one in Bangor, Northern Ireland with Carol Rumens when I was 17 had a particular impact — and bring my poems to them, and that was such a generous thing for them to do, and such a boost for me. With good questions, and the right balance of praise and criticism.
Then I went to a fancy university, and did a three year English Literature degree which was chockfull of the “Canon” (lots of old white English men. I mean, some of them were quite good, but it wasn't particularly diverse), and that put a block on my writing for about 8 years. It is, apparently, not uncommon. Or it wasn't. I hope things are changing. I'm so grateful to that degree for the education that it gave me in the craft of poetry, the perspective and history (well, a history), but it didn't inspire me to go forth and find my own voice. That came much later, in Scotland, when I started going to spoken word nights, poetry readings. I was quite broke at the time, and they tended to be free. And the first time I saw that, I fell in love with words again, and I wanted to do that. Believe it or not, I used to be terribly shy about raising my voice — I blush, profoundly red, still do at various times, and it used to cripple my confidence. But then I discovered that if I was performing or reading poems, I didn't blush, and I loved it, and it made me want to write more. Reading with the ears and writing with the tongue.
In terms of thinking of myself as a poet — that probably didn't take as long as it should have, in that I was very proudly announcing that when I still had so much to learn. There are always things to learn, to read, to get better at. But when you start anything new, the passion is carried along on a wave of innocence and hubris: you think you can do everything, and you have no idea how much you don't know. That's a really good thing. After that, the work starts.
I was incredibly lucky and won a prize with my first pamphlet “The Glassblower Dances” in 2012, which meant I had a two week residency in Greece. And after that, some other opportunities came along. To be able to travel for poetry, to travel to do poetry, to perform and read and listen and teach. That started to feel a bit real. I was still working a million other jobs, of course. I could have said I was a cafe manager, or a barman, or whatever else I was doing to make ends meet at the same time. But around that time, I think I started to add “poet” into that mix. That felt real.
Your “job” is to write poems. Anything else is window-dressing. But in those poems — try to tell the truth, your truth, not anyone else’s truth, in the most unexpected ways that you can manage. You’ll know when you're lying. Revel in language. Read endlessly, listen tirelessly. Don’t be afraid to be complex, uncertain. Be afraid, but not too afraid.
The anthology is a GIFT! There are so many of my favourite poets on there, and a whole heckuva lot that I don’t know, and looking forward to getting acquainted with. I’m a massive Elizabeth Bishop fan — and “One Art” is a joy, a poem that practically performs itself, but it's been done so many times... Don Paterson is one of Scotland's finest poets, and a decent man... Liz Howard, Paul Muldoon, Anne Carson, bill bissett, Hoa Nguyen, Claudia Rankine... oh, come on. A body would want all of those words in its head. And headspace is infinitely expandable. I’m going to cheat and have three, please. These three really strike me with their rhythms and rhymes: how one could play with the reciting of them, really curl them around the tongue. Find oneself in them too.
Erin Mouré “Homage to the Mineral of the Onion (I).” Erin was one of the first poets I read when I came to Montreal (actually, I'd seen her read at StAnza Festival in Scotland a few years before, and had loved her then), and I love the humour and thoughtfulness and surrealism and the most unexpected of links. And truth too, but one would have to leave space for the audience to come to it.
Rachael Boast “Cocteau Twins.” I think Rachael’s work is incredible, delicate and bold all at the same time. Nothing is as expected. This is beautiful, also quite surreal — there would be work to do in the reading of it, to find the meaning. I like those poems — those challenges — best.
Frank O’Hara “The Day Lady Died.” This is full of syncopation, off-beats — one could have so much fun learning and delivering this, with some swagger, some delicacy. And a kicker of a last line too. Oh, one could have so much fun with this one.