Poet Miriam Gamble on New Beginnings

After the move to Glasgow the self-confessed perfectionist on political poetry and the allure of debut collections

Miriam Gamble’s first full collection of poetry was released in 2010 by the prestigious British publishing house Bloodaxe Books. The collection, The Squirrels Are Dead, would go on to win the Somerset Maugham Prize. Gamble who was not yet 30, was one of the brightest young stars in the firmament of Irish poetry. And she up sticks from her native Belfast and moves to Glasgow.

‘It felt like finally I was getting somewhere in Ireland – then I moved to somewhere nobody knew me,’ Gamble, who came to Scotland with her partner, says over a languid late afternoon pint in a central Edinburgh bar. ‘For the first eight months I couldn’t get a job. I walked around every bar, every vintage shop in the West End of Glasgow handing out my CV. It was awful.’

Gamble, who admits ‘I’m not a good mover’, took time to adjust to both a new city and a very different poetry scene. ‘Belfast is ferocious. The Heaney Centre (in Queen’s University of Belfast) has probably the most impressive group of poets in Ireland.’

Eighteen months on, however, the move is paying dividends. After a stint as a subtitler on the BBC – with the predictable, and not so predictable, on-air gaffes – Gamble has a new job, as a distance creative writing lecturer in the University of Edinburgh, and has just moved across from Glasgow to Scotland’s capital. She’s also working on poems for a second collection, although she’s reluctant to go into too much detail about her new work.

‘By the time you get to the second collection you’re a bit older, a bit more serious. There needs to be some sense of why you are doing what you are doing,’ she says. A self-confessed perfectionist (‘I’m a Virgo’, she offers by way of explanation), Gamble seems to be going through the literary equivalent of second album syndrome. It doesn't help that she has clear preference for debut collections. ‘I have a huge thing for first books. Jeffery Hill, Derek Mahon, Don Paterson, though not Paul Muldoon... It’s probably just babyish on my part.’

Listening to Miriam Gamble talk is not dissimilar to reading her on the page: the wry, slightly dark sense of humour is present, as is the playfulness with language, all tied together by a hefty dose of self-deprecation. There’s a strong, independent, and decidedly catholic intellect at play too. Gamble, who wrote a PhD on contemporary Irish and British poetry at Queen’s, is a voracious reader of poetry and an accomplished critic in her own right.

Currently she is engrossed in The Captive Mind, a 1953 book on art in a totalitarian state by Polish dissident Czeslaw Milosc. Does she see herself writing political poetry? ‘I’m interested in the idea of being political in poems,’ the poet says, ‘but I’m not sure what that would mean or what that would look like. I never want to write awful diatribes on politics.’

Gamble has been writing poetry since she was an adolescent but ‘only really started to take it seriously when I was 23 or 24.’ By that stage she had left Oxford, where she did an undergraduate degree in English, and returned to Belfast. Of her Oxford days, Gamble is circumspect but has little love for her alma mater.

‘The sheen wore off life at Oxford very quickly,’ says Gamble, who describes herself as ‘a very young 18’ when she left her ‘quite standard middle-class framework’ for arguably the most celebrated university in the world.

For a bookish girl from Belfast with a love of horses, academic life at Oxford seemed distinctly ‘abnormal’. Meanwhile the studious approach to literature and writing at the university was more a help than a hindrance for a young writer struggling to be comfortable in her own voice: ‘At Oxford the idea that you write yourself was seen as ridiculous. All you could do was criticism of primary texts or criticism of criticism.

‘My sister went to university in Glasgow, and it was my second choice. I think I probably would have preferred to have gone there.’ Over a decade later Gamble finally did make it to the erstwhile ‘Second City of the British Empire’ and, after a testing baptism, has now established herself and her work in Scotland.

‘It’s all worked out in the end,’ she smiles, as Fergal Sharkey’s 80s pop ballad ‘A Good Heart’ plays out over the bar’s PA. ‘Something in my head likes to think that everything works for a reason – although I know deep down it doesn’t!’