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Roddy Lumsden - An Obituary

Roddy Lumsden - Poet

Born May 28, 1966; died January 10, 2020

Roddy Lumsden, who has died aged 53, was one of the finest poets of his generation writing in the English language. Over ten collections that began in 1997 with Yeah Yeah Yeah, right up the most recent, So Glad I’m Me (2017), Lumsden produced a dense and unflinchingly candid form of poetry that was by turns melancholy, obsessive and possessed with a vulnerability and self-deprecatory gallows humour. 

This brought his work back down to earth in a world populated with bar-room eccentrics and lovers past, present, future and imagined. His rich, elaborate and forensically precise demotic dug deep into pop culture in a milieu described by one contemporary as being full of both heartbreak and hilarity.

It was these sensibilities that endeared Lumsden to numerous off-kilter gigs. While his books were short-listed for major prizes, his various posts included stints as poet in residence with the music industry, performing with The Divine Comedy, and residencies at a five-star hotel and golf course in his home town of St Andrews. He was also commissioned to effectively shadow supermodel Kate Moss during a fashion shoot and write poems in response. This culminated in a recording of Moss reading Lumsden’s poem, Bloom.

As a teacher, editor, mentor and champion of younger writers, Lumsden’s influence on a new generation of British poets is immeasurable. He nurtured hundreds of writers, both for the generation-defining anthology, Identity Parade: New British & Irish Poets (2010) and beyond. He also channelled his astonishing facility for obscure words and facts into Vitamin Q: a temple of trivia lists and curious words (2004).

Roderick Chalmers Lumsden was born and raised in St. Andrews, the youngest of three sons to an electrician father who played drums in a dance-band and his mother Betty, who worked as a university accommodation administrator. Lumsden’s love of poetry dated back to early childhood when his mother read him poems, with The Owl and the Pussycat a particular favourite. 

Sharing a room with a brother Eric, who read to him from the age of seven, also left its mark. As recounted in his introduction to The Message (1999), the anthology he co-edited with Stephen Trousse that highlighted the relationship between poetry and pop music, that was the age he composed his first poem. This came about largely because he was too lazy to write the story requested by his teacher about what he did the night before. 

Lumsden spent his pocket money on work by A.A. Milne and Hilaire Belloc, and as a teenager made up song lyrics in his head while delivering newspapers. Between 1978 and 1984 he attended Madras College, but was forced to leave through illness aged seventeen, and began writing poetry in earnest.

Lumsden’s writing continued at Edinburgh University in 1984, where he showed his work to writer-in-residence Liz Lochhead, who encouraged and supported him. With fellow poet Andrew Jackson, he co-founded Fox magazine, before graduating in 1987 with an MA General Arts.

For the next few years Lumsden lived off playing pub quiz machines, and later compiled quizzes. In 1991, he won an Eric Gregory Award, but it wasn’t until 1997 that his debut collection, Yeah Yeah Yeah, was published by Bloodaxe. The book highlighted a talent steeped in pop culture, but with a fondness for form and unearthing arcane words that saw it shortlisted for the Forward Prize in the Best First Collection section. 

After leaving Edinburgh for London, The Book of Love (2000) was a Poetry Book Society choice and was shortlisted for The John Llewelyn Rhys Prize as well as the T.S. Eliot. Roddy Lumsden is Dead followed in 2001, with Mischief Night: New and Selected Poems (2004) a watershed collection and PBS recommendation that marked the rise of new influences. 

Lumsden immersed himself in London’s poetry scene, for a time becoming vice chair of the Poetry Society of Great Britain, later working as commissioning editor for poetry at Salt Publishing. His own work was collected in Third Wish Wasted (2009), Terrific Melancholy (2011), The Bells of Hope (2012) and Not All Honey (2014), which was shortlisted for the Saltire Society’s Scottish Poetry Book of the Year Award. Melt and Solve followed in 2015. Lumsden partnered fellow writer Val McDermid on BBC Radio 4’s Round Britain Quiz, with the pair winning the 2014 series.

For the last two years of his life Lumsden lived in a care home in New Cross, London. What turned out to be his final collection, So Glad I’m Me, appeared in 2017, and was shortlisted for both the T.S. Eliot Award and the Saltire. At this year’s T.S. Eliot Awards, which took place two days after his passing, Lumsden’s huge influence was acknowledged by Ian McMillan. “Many people here,” McMillan said, “will owe the way they write to Roddy Lumsden.”

Lumsden is survived by his mother Betty, his two brothers Jimmy and Eric, and various nephews and nieces.

The Herald, January 5th 2020



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