The Book Blog—Kevin Cormack

After a brief hiatus, The Book Blog is back! We’re delighted to welcome Kevin Cormack, after attending the launch of his new poetry book Toonie Void in Kirkwall last month. Abersee Press publisher Duncan McLean described it as “arguably the most impressive and important debut by an Orkney poet since [George Mackay Brown’s] The Storm in 1954.”

Kevin is a musician, artist and writer who was born and brought up in Kirkwall. He lives in London, where he works in a cafe and runs a small record label, Spillage Fete Records, with two friends. He has released music under a number of different names, including Half Cousin (with fellow Orcadian Jimmy Hogarth), Jam Money, Bons, Harry Deerness and Speedbooth. His writing has appeared in various publications including Less Apparent Horizon, Marro, OAR, Orkney Stoor, Swiet Haar, and Bella Caledonia.

Hello Kevin. We were excited to get our hands on a copy of your new poetry book, Toonie Void. Can you tell us about the book, and the writing process?

I’d contributed poems to the Abersee publications Orkney Stoor and Swiet Haar, so when I had another batch of poems ready (which coincided with a trip to Orkney in 2019), Duncan McLean had a look and said he’d be interested in producing a solo booklet.  Lockdowns and delays caused by Covid gave me a chance to revise what I had and also write a lot more, thankfully! 

Quite a few of the Swiet Haar poems came from interpreting automatic drawings I’d done, so I was interested to keep this process up. Toonie Void involved some of those kind of drawing meditations, as well as the more usual (I presume) technique of having initial quick poetry sketches and finding the key/s to unlock and finish them. This could take a few days or a few months! Kirkwall—the Toon—slowly became central to the whole thing.

What about the decision to write in dialect—was this ever in doubt?

No, never in doubt. It’s where I feel most myself, whatever that means… the flow.
I started writing in dialect about 12 years ago, when I stopped singing. I’d been poking at the accent before, as part of songwriting—slowing down tapes and trying to extract the melodies of the Orkney voice. The real music of the accent can’t be separated from the dialect, the spoken word. Once I got into that there was no need for extra frills. 

I’m reading London Orbital at the moment, by Iain Sinclair, about walking the M25. It reminds me how important it is to include as much as you can of what’s actually going on around you, no matter what your tastes are. A bit like Martin Parr’s photography… Trying for an honest document. Orcadians spaek Orcadian. That’s surely worth recording.

Can you tell us a bit about your links to Orkney, and what your relationship with Orkney is like now?

Mum is from Harray and Dad is from Deerness, with branches of the family coming from Tankerness and Kirkwall as well. My family are hugely inspiring to my writing: stories, characters, memories, relations I knew who are sadly no longer here—or ones I never knew but hear stories about them from my parents. Filling in the blanks. My relationship to Orkney now is the same as ever: I miss it a lot, yet haven’t found a way back!

Have you spent much time in Stromness Books & Prints? What do you like about it?

Whenever I’m in Stromness I always pop into the Stromness Bookshop. Especially for the great Scottish and Orcadian selection. In this phone-controlled/obsoletion culture I love more and more the things that endure: bicycles, musical instruments, books… Bookshops are magical places, defiant.

What Orkney writers have influenced you?

Simon Hall, firstly. We’ve been close friends since school, where he got me into MacCaig, MacDiarmid, Heaney, Lanark, Swing Hammer Swing… I love Robert Rendall’s Orkney Variants. I wish he’d done more in dialect. Edwin Muir. GMB: unavoidable, thankfully! Greenvoe at school was a mind-blower, as prescient as ever. Margaret Tait: the scrutinising yet playful voices of her poems. And her films, showing how strange and beautiful Kirkwall is. Gregor Lamb: The Orkney Wordbook and The Orkney Dictionary (with Margaret Flaws)—for reference/consolidating grammar and spelling—and magpie raids!

Magpie raids! I love that. What other books and writers have been important to you?

It’s very difficult to settle on a handful! Independent People and Fish Can Sing by Haldór Laxness. The stories of Alice Munro, Muriel Spark. The poetry of Michael Donaghy, C P Cavafy, Richard Wilbur, Don Paterson.

Single poems can be as influential as entire books, like: ‘Flying Crooked’ by Robert Graves, ‘Faint Music’ by Robert Hass, ‘Restraint’ by Douglas Dunn. Or the influence is sometimes a whole series, like the Penguin Modern European Poets paperbacks from the 1960s.

Are there any upcoming books that you are looking forward to?

I’m a beachcomber when it comes to books, scouring second-hand shops mostly, so I’m always a bit behind the times. Just getting into Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance. And I’m very much looking forward to Harry Josephine Giles’ Deep Wheel Orcadia!

Us too. What books do you like to give as gifts to others?

Janet Frame’s autobiographies. Tomas Tranströmer’s collected poems. I’m more likely to lend or pass books on, like these ones recently: No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein and England’s Hidden Reverse (a biography of Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound ) by David Keenan.

Pick up a copy of Toonie Void in the bookshop, or direct from the publisher, Abersee Press.

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