HAS the sweeping experience of the last six months delivered anything good, anything we can build on? What have we learnt? What’s next? Alan Riach talks to Alec Finlay about his poetry and art, the Cholmondeley Award, the social value of the arts, and his own battle with the coronavirus.

ALEC Finlay is one of the most distinguished contemporary poets and artists working in Scotland today, as acknowledged by his recent receipt of the Cholmondeley Award, a prestigious recognition of artistic achievement. Past winners include Liz Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Allen Curnow and Seamus Heaney.

In the context of funding cuts and increasingly urgent questions about the value of the arts in contemporary society, it seemed like a good opportunity to have a word with him. Alec has recently been suffering from Covid-19 and it seemed doubly apt to address his personal experience of the disease, his knowledge of others in similar situations, and what it means in the context of the work of a fully committed creative artist.

Alan Riach: Alec, first could you tell us a little about the Cholmondeley Award and what it means to you?

Alec Finlay: The Cholmondeley is awarded by peers for a lifetime contribution to poetry. As I sometimes make poems for beehives as well as books, it was reassuring to know that work beyond the page can be recognised.

AR: You’ve been going through this ordeal with the disease. How would you say it might be measured against the creative struggle we’re engaged with here?

AF: People with autoimmune diseases knew this was coming. We’re bellwethers or canaries. Covid-19 began in March here like the Klingon death virus, followed by recoveries, relapses and everything post-Covid. After 130 days I can totter around up to about 100 metres. I’m determined to recover, but it’s like composing a poem you can’t find the words for. The vulnerability of illness puts me in mind of radical gentleness – there are things we must change, politically and culturally, but transformation requires empathy.

AR: There’s a levelling about a viral disease, a universal indifference to any particular person, but we also live in a stratified social hierarchy, I think not only politically but also in terms of how the arts are valued. Would you comment on that?

AF: Chronic illness, trauma, violence, prejudice, share the struggle: how to feel reality as something held in common. Pain is often invisible. To heal, others must imagine how pain feels. Again, healing a body or society, depends on empathetic relationships. If the chronically ill feel overlooked it’s because they are, but their needs aren’t in competition with other communities. Not walking won’t stop me imagining walks or collaborating with people who walk for me.

Coronavirus revealed inequality, but lockdown brought about a gentleness for some, which they want to hold on to. In poetry, there’s a conservatism that ploughs a narrow furrow of personal experience. And nowadays a fad for accusation stifles poetry’s ability to read across our experiences of identity.

AR: So internal rivalries, self-righteous accusations, complaints and fearfulness, anxieties and bullying of one kind or another – these are as present in the cultural world as they are in any other?

AF: Back in 2001 I co-edited a multi-cultural anthology, Wish I Was Here, featuring poets with more than one language or culture – Urdu, Shetlandic, Gaelic. The poems reveal resonances between multilingual lives. I wonder if an editor would feel safe to do that book now? Let’s read empire critically, from slave and Gaelic slave-owner cleared from a homeland, to Robert Burns’s “The Slave’s Lament”, deer-hunting, land ownership, and rewilding. My work with place names taught me that multiculturalism’s always been with us, if we choose to see it.

AR: You seem to be approving a kind of tolerance, an openness, but one that adamantly refuses competitive confrontation or superiorism.

AF: Real progress requires forgiveness, not vengeance. A writer friend was embedded with medics treating diseases such as coronavirus in West Africa and they became paralysed by the fear of being attacked by peers. A small network of poets stymies conversations and limit culture’s ability to redefine healing. I’m shocked how endemic fear is among younger poets – false accusation, bullying cloaked in principle, as well as examples where legal process is appropriate.

Shaming people isn’t progressive – it’s inimical to the left that shaped me. Poets need to stand for diversity and against shaming – I don’t mean pick sides: there are no sides, only acts. Social media enables a small minority feart to debate issues face to face to bandy gossip, so we need forms of “parley”, where accusers and accused meet and, where possible, seek reconciliation.

Likewise, bampots make independence more difficult. I hoped the coronavirus crisis could renew social networks, but I’m not sure. Anger still dominates – it’s as if we couldn’t cook a meal, only break eggs. My father, Ian Hamilton Finlay, was a one-man take-down culture, before the vigilantes of social media, so it’s strange to see that terrifying experience repeated.

Poets who bandwagon accusation need to understand what it’s like to be subject to hyperbolic conflict. Poets as legislators? Wounded artists become figures of wrath – what IHF would call a lightning rod, and he would know. That’s why I’m for parley, empathetic radicalism, and shared healing. That’s my revolution.

For more about the Cholmondeley Award see www.societyofauthors.org/Prizes/Society-of-Authors-Awards/Cholmondeley Alec Finlay’s Covid-19 creative tool-kit: www.dayofaccess.co.uk/2020/03/covid-19-creative-tool-kit.html