“I want this to be a poetry book for people that don’t normally read poetry.”
That’s how Michael Pedersen described his new collection in a conversation with The Fountain. Created in collaboration with Frightened Rabbit’s lead singer Scott Hutchison, Oyster is Pedersen’s second publication with Polygon Books, a tragic yet playful collection of poetry and illustrations.
Pedersen discussed the process of writing Oyster, as well as the events celebrating its publication that will take place at Edinburgh International Book Festival, Glasgow Poetry Club and finally at Electric Fields.
TF: You and Scott from Frightened Rabbit have collaborated together on this book, Oyster. Can you tell us about the book?
So the book is my second full collection of poetry. It’s the same publisher that I’ve worked with again called Polygon Books. I like them, they are a small poetry publisher, but they have a big fiction and a big history and a musical archive so you are on a really diverse catalogue. The first one went well and they gave me a lot of creative freedom and it’s always been important to me to have a visual element to the book.
So Scott has illustrated the collection, he has done about ten or eleven different illustrations and a full cover wraparound. But it’s more than that, the book. It’s not like I have just given Scott these poems, he has illustrated it and that’s the end of it. Scott and I have been friends for years but have been toying with and jostling at different ways to work together over the years. We tried a bit of songwriting, I went up to visit him on Mull when he was recording the Owl John solo album that he brought out with Atlantic and when he released that, I did some supports with him at the Caves in Edinburgh.
So we have always been performing with one another and trying to find avenues into each other’s work, and knowing that we really enjoyed it. He hadn’t come out as much with his illustration, he wasn’t as well known for it as his songwriting. It was a way of us working together and lighting little fuses on what was quite a personal and secretive project. I knew that I wanted Scott to illustrate the book for a lot longer than he did. I didn’t tell him until the book was almost ready so there was not so much anticipation about it, and by that point we were spinning each other’s cogs anyway so we could hit the ground running.
So it’s just off to the printers now. We should get it back next week, so we have been playing with paper samples and flaps/no-flaps, which is always a big scenario in the book world and all of the different colour aesthetics of it. We have both ended up with something I think is a collaboration. It’s not a book that has been illustrated by Scott or poems that matches his illustrations, it is a collaboration. It’s an incentive as well. Now that we have this book that we have both coined together, which I think we both feel as personally about we have to represent it live.
We are doing a UK tour and it starts at the Edinburgh International Book Festival but the premise of that is very formulaic. The Book Festival has a great way of running high quality literary events whereby the reader reads for a certain period of time, the illustrator, musician or performer performs for a certain period of time and there is a Q&A and that is sort of the antithesis of where we want Oyster to end up. We want it to be a live show, we want it to incorporate songs and poems and both our ideas. It might involve other performers, we might have a visual aesthetic, a pop-up aesthetic and I guess the whole point of touring it is, yes, to launch the book, but at the same time to work out how we can turn this into something which is a live representation of why we are doing this together, why we will continue to do things like this together.
TF: And Scott has illustrated the title? We are aware of his music background obviously but are you able to elaborate on his illustration background?
So Scott was at Glasgow School of Art. He had completed a degree in illustration and I think loved and hated it at the same time. I think he got a little bit frustrated that sometimes he felt like exhibitions were just a case of showing off your work to other students in your year and gathering this sort of collective momentum rather than producing something which went further than that. I presume he was always doing music at the time, and did, I think, work as a freelance illustrator for a little bit after graduating.
And at the same time as doing that, the music was building and building and building and they were releasing more albums and becoming more popular and then, all of a sudden, I think the music was the one that was creating most demands for his time, creating most income and probably I guess was a quicker, faster, energetic, more approachable way of relaying how he was feeling at that point in time. Frightened Rabbit have just been going from strength to strength for a long period of time but I noticed he has constantly been illustrating, as he did a Stanley Odd EP not long ago. I saw him doing a charity auction for drum skins for different causes that the family was involved in and I see he very much still had a finger on the pulse when it came to illustration. So it was obviously still an art form which was important to him, which he had a background in and he wanted to continue to flourish and the more of his work I saw, the more it appealed to me. There’s a juvenile innocence to it, but it can also come across as quite tragic. His illustrations are fantastically bizarre, they are confusing and conflicting aliens in the same way that I felt the poems were. And poetry and illustration and poetry and animation have always shared that twisting of moral belief. There is a stop gap in time, there is a propensity for surrealism which defies science and common logic at times.
Encouraging that element of him, which was still obviously there and vibrant and randy anyway, was just an interesting fissure for this collaboration to go down because we have just essentially been working out different ways to do that for a wee while.
TF: And this is your second collection of poetry? Does it have a thread, is it thematic?
It’s a poetic potpourri of different themes joined together. There is definitely a linkage back into the previous collection. Play With Me was a sort of exploration but if that was the boot camp this is the real voyage. The collections are a lot longer. A lot of the character poems that came across quite strongly in the previous collection have developed. The social narrative element of it is still there. I think it is still quite sexually evocative, quite playful, there is still a liberalism to them.
The last one was called Play With Me and this one is called Oyster, and there is an incident about the licking of an oyster. It was also meant to be full of playful double entendre and romantic quips. The way that I saw this one develop was that I was a lot more confident in the poems for better or worse. I guess last time I hadn’t been through a structural editorial process or had the whole back catalogue of sequencing poems and piecing things together as a collection. It was sort of roistering around in the back of my mind.
With the previous collection I felt the need to almost publish every poem with a different magazine or journal almost for their sanction that I thought it was publishable, that it reached an audience and that it could then be read out loud. And there was this whole box-ticking process of proving the poetic work of these individually and collectively, whereas with this one I felt the desire to do the opposite. In fact the only poems that have been published have been ones that have been strictly commissioned or people have asked for because they know the magazines in which they run or they have heard me read live. I have not submitted any of these to journals or magazines. I have sort of kept them all to myself so that there would be a bit more of a reveal all. And it made it a bit more momentous for them to all arrive collectively alongside this new batch of illustrations which I have sort of ingrained into them. Hopefully it’s more playful and more tragic at the same time. There is certainly a lot more ink on the pages so that’s a start.
TF: With the book out in August, you and Scott will be performing at EIBF. What roles will you take whilst on stage?
It’s technically out in September. The Book Festival August launch and the Glasgow Poetry Club one are sort of pre-launches. The publication date is on the 1st September which is when Scott and I will both be at Electric Fields festival. We are running a Neu! Reekie! stage there and I am going to be doing a reading that sort of merges into Scott playing music, and Frightened Rabbit are headlining the whole thing later on that night. I felt it was a good, conducive and formidable place for us both to be on the publication day. So August is the sneak preview. It won’t go out into the bookshops until September apart from at EIBF, who have exclusive rights to it.
It’s the first time we will have done it is at the Book Festival so we don’t want to reinvent the wheel from the start. We want this to be an evolving process, but me reading poetry and Scott playing music is the arrival of it. With the Book Festival we will just be getting used to doing it together for the first time. I am confident with the poems, Scott’s super-confident with his songs. We chose our own chair so we had someone that had as much of an understanding of Scott’s music as they do my poetry, so we have Roddy Woomble doing that as he had given me a book that he had written which is a poetry lyric book. Every time I bumped into Roddy he was wanting to speak to me about old Scot’s poets. It’s interesting when you speak to people in big bands and if they know you are into literature and if they are into literature they want to speak about anything but music and it’s brilliant. So he had this constant dialogue with me about poetry and I thought he would be a good middle man to circle that conversation down the room. That one will very much be me reading and Scott playing music and us talking about why we did this book together live for the first time in front of people and then chatting with each other afterwards to ameliorate that format and make it more thrilling for ourselves and the audience constantly.
Photos by Kat Gollock and illustrations by Scott Hutchison.
Oyster is published by Polygon Books on 1st September.