Local talent: Professor Don Paterson joins Topping & Co.’s literary festival line-up

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Photo: Davis McCutcheon
Photo: Davis McCutcheon
Photo: Davis McCutcheon

Topping & Company hosts a lot of events. A multitude of writers and poets alike have passed through their doors, and in the coming months, they have a reading scheduled every few days. However one reading, this past Tuesday, was different. Why? Because Don Paterson was the invited speaker. Who is Don Paterson and what makes him so different from the other authors and poets reading at Topping, you may ask? That’s an easy question to answer. Don Paterson is one of our highly distinguished professors here at St Andrews. But he is so much more than just a professor; he is also a poet, a musician and even an editor for a publishing company. Professor Paterson does it all.

How on earth does he find the time to do all of this? “You fit it in,” he says. “I don’t write many poems. I guess I write fewer than I used to. It all gets done. I don’t sleep much. I mostly do things that I love and when you do things that you love then time flies by – it doesn’t feel like work.”

Now the next question to ask is, does he do them all well? It turns out he does.

Professor Paterson’s current students rave about his down-to-earth demeanour. One of his current thesis supervisees told The Saint: “He’s not an academic overlord type. He just talks to us like human beings.” So good professor, check.

How about as a poet? Stuart Kelly, in his review for The Scotsman, wrote of Professor Paterson’s new collection 40 Sonnets: “This book has the kind of inevitability associated with a perfect rhyme, as well as the perfect sleight-of-hand whereby you didn’t see the inevitability coming. Amateur poets endstop lines with a cross between a metronome and tinnitus. A poet of genius, like Paterson, makes the chime simultaneously a cadence and a surprise.” A ‘poet of genius’ is an accurate description. Professor Paterson has won the highly esteemed Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in addition to being the only poet to ever be award the T .S. Eliot Prize twice.

Professor Paterson has been a poetry editor for Picador, a subdivision of Pan Macmillan, for longer than he can remember. The publishing house is one of the world’s largest, so it is safe to assume they do not hire just anybody.

The last career of this multi-talented man is jazz musician. While he started out playing guitar for a living, he admits that now music is more of a hobby. Nonetheless, he takes it just seriously as his other roles. When asked to compare the spontaneity of jazz to the rigid form of the sonnet, his other favoured medium, he said: “Jazz has a spontaneous element but it’s also heavily structured. Even though I started playing free improvisation in the 80s – a pretty wild kind of music – a lot of the improvisation I do now is within a structure. Though hopefully it’s largely inaudible to the listener. So there’s a comparison, inasmuch as when you are writing a poem you’re also improvising within a form. The sonnet you can get to know well enough not to be really aware of it anymore. You don’t even have to think about the rules, and are able to just think inside the form. So they’re kind of equivalent in some ways but in others have got nothing to do with each other at all.”

Professor Paterson’s latest accomplishment is the publication of his seventh collection of poetry, 40 Sonnets. It is quite different from his 2009 book of poetry, Rain, which was much more conceptual – and thematically cohesive – than 40 Sonnets. The Telegraph called it “thrillingly varied,” which is evidenced by the wide range of titles found within the book; from the haunting ‘Souls’ to the tantalizingly titled ‘To Dundee City Council.’

When asked about the differences between Rain and 40 Sonnets, mainly that the former is much more cohesive than the latter, Professor Paterson said: “Rain didn’t cohere at all; it just looked like it did. I think that all these things ever do is reflect what I’ve obsessed over at the time. I’ve got no interest in writing to a theme because you would end up making poems to fit it. You’re just moved by something, so you write a poem about it. But sometimes it’s the same thing you’re obsessed with over a period of years. So in the case of Rain, there were a lot of elegies for a friend of mine who died far too young. So I guess that gives it some appearance of thematic consistency. But it never occurred to me to do anything but make one poem as different from another as possible, so you don’t say the same thing twice.”

As 40 Sonnets has been met with such a positive response, tickets for Professor Paterson’s reading at Topping on Tuesday night were a hot commodity. Despite his success, Professor Paterson still finds readings challenging. “I do a lot of readings, probably far too many,” he says. “The ones near to home are always more difficult. It is actually much easier to walk out and see faces you don’t recognise. But that’s not going to be the case [at Topping]. It will have a kind of family feel to it, I suspect, and I’ll know a lot of people there. That’s assuming anyone comes at all! It could just be a bunch of empty seats.”

Professor Paterson’s anxiety, however, was misplaced. At the time of writing, tickets were half sold out and the bookshop expected many at-the-door guests considering the fame of this local talent.

He does admit that readings have their positive aspects as well. For starters, his poems take on a new spirit when read aloud. “It’s a funny thing, because I’m not a performance poet, but nonetheless you write poems in a way that you hope shape the air when you read them,” he says. “And it’s an opportunity for people to get a quick handle on the poems before they read them on the page.”

While he is the invited speaker, Professor Paterson says that his audience also contributes to the reading with their comments and analysis. “From a selfish point of view I like having my poems explained to me by people, because I don’t always understand what they’re about, and it’s often in conversation with people afterward that I learn what I actually meant,” he says. “I don’t think poets have any kind of definitive interpretation of their own poems.”

Perhaps this uncertainty is why Professor Paterson, even with all of his experience, still gets nervous in front of a crowd. “As I get older I get more stage fright,” he says. “When I was young I was just full of self-confidence, but as you get to know yourself you realize just how misplaced that self-confidence is.” But this discomfort does not negate the benefits that come from readings like the one at Topping. “I can’t complain. I’m very grateful to be invited,” he says.

And he means that. In person, Professor Paterson comes across as humble and unpretentious. In response to the praise for 40 Sonnets, he says: “The compliments are for the poems not the poet. But it’s nice to hear your poems not get a kicking. Praise can be as dangerous as a bad notice shaming; you can’t allow yourself to take either too seriously. Of course I’d rather people enjoy the book. But the real purpose is to get the poems out there and to get me out of the picture. I think most poets are like that – they are trying to give the stuff away. They’re not trying to keep it.”

So  Professor Paterson is giving away his poems, most recently at Topping on 29 September. While you may have missed this event, Topping & Co. has become quite the happening place.

Their upcoming events schedule is full of similar events, providing a taste of both culture and entertainment. Tickets range from three to six pounds and with the price of the ticket redeemable against the cost of the speaker’s latest book, these readings are a bargain. They have a wide variety of authors coming up, including William Boyd (tonight at 8 pm) and Simon Armitage. Not to mention that on 6 October they are transforming their shop into the wizarding bookshop of Flourish and Blotts to celebrate the release of the first fully illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

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