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Scottish poet Don Patterson on his memoir 'Toy Fights'


Don Paterson is one of the great poets in the world. He was the only poet to twice win the T.S. Eliot Prize and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. But he left school at the age of 16 to play guitar. There's scarcely any references to poetry in his childhood memoir of growing up in a working-class housing block in Dundee, Scotland, during the 1970s. There are telling and hilarious recollections, like this about bedwetting.

DON PATERSON: (Reading) Dad tried to incentivize my continence by putting a star on the door when I had a dry night with the promise of reward once the door was full. This isn't a great system, but it works much better than battering the child into compliance or humiliating them before their peers. That I could manage myself. I recall sitting outside in the close steps in front of the tenement with the bigger kids who were discussing what guns and outfits they were saving up for. I don't know what possessed me to breezily chip in with, yeah, if I don't wet the bed for another six weeks, I'm getting an Action Man. But the remark didn't quite win the nods of chin-stroking approval I'd hoped for.

SIMON: Don Paterson's memoir is called "Toy Fights," and he joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

PATERSON: It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us a little about that three-story building where you lived. You're right. There was so much more early death on the street than I took in at the time.

PATERSON: Yeah, it was fairly typical. I mean, I think because so much of the housing in Dundee was owned by the council, and it was so homogenous. You didn't really notice anything, you know, because there were no exceptions to it. But looking back, it was a very poor neighborhood. But as a consequence of that and the usual factors like intergenerational trauma and the experience of the men coming back from the war and then the high levels of alcoholism - yeah, it would be true to say that life expectancy wasn't the highest on our street.

SIMON: What drew you as a child, in Scotland, after all, to the music of those American outlaws, Willie and Kris Kristofferson?

PATERSON: It's interesting. I had to think about this. And I suppose it's - in a way, we saw it as what had initially happened in reverse because, of course, Celtic music itself is a great kind of cultural input into country music. So it was just our music coming home again. But it was hugely popular in Scotland, so it wasn't unusual to be into it. But my father was a massive enthusiast. He started as a folk musician and then later became a country musician. And that was his love.

SIMON: You write about a deeply religious period that you went through in your life.

PATERSON: Well, yeah, I sort of became a kind of Pentecostal Christian. And my reasons for doing so were kind of complicated. I think I was trying to square the circle of, on the one hand, pleasing my mother, but also kind of trying to be a worry to my parents as part of the kind of adolescent contract. So I found a way of sort of, you know, as I say, squaring the circle by adopting a form of Christianity that was so extreme as to be quite a worry to them. So I went the full kind of charismatic Christian and spoke in tongues and all that stuff.

SIMON: I want to get you to talk about what you - well, what you very bluntly describe as, quote, "my descent into madness." What happened to deliver you into Ward 89?

PATERSON: Yeah, it was a hard thing to unpack because, again, it was a kind of odd convergence of circumstances. But one would have been recovering from that period of religious mania. But it was also drugs. I got heavily into, you know, smoking too much dope. And at the time in Scotland, it was getting mixed with, you know, other substances. So I had a kind of unfortunate out-of-body experience that was like a week-long panic attack. And after that I was hospitalized for four months. It was diagnosed sort of afterwards, I discovered, as a schizophrenic episode. So that wasn't much fun.

SIMON: You had, I gather, competing visions in your head.

PATERSON: Certainly had competing voices. I think the only thing that I took away was that there's nothing really at the center. You have to kind of create a self or construct an ego or something to hold to. Because for a while, all I had was various voices, none of whom I could identify as me. So the whole process was really sort of trying to kind of reconstruct a self just from available materials. So it was fairly horrific to watch it be dismantled in that way and realize that you didn't really have a center anymore.

SIMON: Why is there almost no mention of poetry here in this memoir?

PATERSON: I think it's - rather arbitrarily, or maybe sensibly, decided a cut-off point would be at the age of 20. But poetry wasn't any part of my life then. So - and it didn't really kick in until I was about 21. There is one little sort of incident that I remembered though from when I was about 6 years old, which was kind of odd, if you're a determinist. And my father had found a little book in the loft, and I'd drawn a picture of Robert Burns - as a statue of Robert Burns in the middle of Dundee City Centre

SIMON: Robert Burns, the great Scottish poet.

PATERSON: That's right. But I'd written underneath it, when I grow up, I am going to be a peot (ph) and write peorty (ph). And that was the last I'd thought about it for the next 15 years.

SIMON: All right. Just before our interview, the producer of this segment asked you standard question to get your voice level that he asks - what was your first car? And you said you don't drive. And I said, huzzah, because neither do I.

PATERSON: Excellent.

SIMON: And you write in this book, as a general rule, poets can't drive, and the ones who do drive shouldn't.

PATERSON: Yeah, I should qualify that. That's kind of male poets, you know? I know a lot of really great female poets who also drive very well. But there's something about male poets and cars that don't go well together. I'm not entirely sure what that is. But I've often kind of suspected that poetry itself is really more of a kind of a diagnosis than a calling. And I think maybe an aspect of that diagnosis is that you also can't drive.

SIMON: This memoir ends at the age of 20. Does that mean stay tuned?

PATERSON: Initially, it meant I didn't know whether I would continue or not. But I appear to have signed a contract and be 40,000 words into the next bit. So I guess so, yeah. It's - so it's a boyhood Part 2 since men remain children till the age of 40.

SIMON: Forty?

PATERSON: Thirty-five.

SIMON: I would give you beyond that. Don Paterson - his memoir, "Toy Fights." Thank you so much for being with us.

PATERSON: Thanks, Scott. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.