Friday, December 22, 2006

Season's Greetings

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Draft Culture (Scotland) Bill

The Scottish Executive has published its draft Culture (Scotland) Bill for consultation. This marks an important juncture for arts and culture policy in Scotland, but The Scotsman reports that James Boyle, the head of the Cultural Commission, which the Executive set up to draw up a vision for Scotland's cultural policy, is not at all happy with the draft bill. Likewise, The Herald's report and editorial will not make happy reading for those at Victoria Quay. Something of a contrast with the warm words on the Executive's own site.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Best Scottish Poems 2006

The Scottish Poetry Library's third annual online choice of Scottish poems published in the past 12 months or so--Best Scottish Poems 2006--went live on St Andrew's Day. As ever, it's a highly inpidual choice by this year's editor, Janice Galloway, as you can see if you compare it with the 2005 choice by Richard Price or the 2004 one by Hamish Whyte, who is represented in the 2006 gathering.

Galloway's gleanings include a poem a piece by Shore Poets Diana Hendry and Christine De Luca. Christine's poem is a moving but light elegy for Gael Turnbull, capturing so much of a very fine and sorely missed poet.

There's also a piece by Chloe Morrish, whom I met at the Responding to Rilke reading. It's a moving poem about her father and her younger brother, who died of a neurological disease aged 11. Poems about loss and grief are hard to do well, but this one quitely captures the mix of love, sadness, regret and happiness that such remembering entails.

Monday, December 11, 2006


Yesterday's opening of illuminate went well. Just about the right number of people came to make it feel busy without being crowded. The mulled wine, mince pies and lebkuchen went down a treat and everyone enjoyed the exhibts (some of the children who came particularly enjoyed standing in front of the video projector). Photographs were taken, so I'll have to see whether I can grab any of them to post here.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Switching on the Lights

We spent most of today setting up the illuminate exhibition I plugged in the previous post. Tiring work, but it's looking good. There are still a couple of things to install before tomorrow's opening, but I think everyone involved is very pleased with how it looks and hangs together.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


This Christmas exhibition will include three poems of mine presented as a triptych. Readers of Tonguefire will be familiar with two of them--"His Wading Light" and "A Voice is Heard in Ramah"--but the third, which is called "Down Darkness Wide", is new and takes a different view of the story.

Interestingly, although the word triptych is usually applied to paintings, the first sense given in The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is "A set of three writing-tablets hinged or tied together." So it seems I'm taking it back to an earlier usage.

illuminate will also include, among other pieces: a video installation, paintings, stained glass work, a hanging photo-montage, a shadowbox/calligraphy installation and a sound recording of some of Douglas Briton's poems. You can view the details of where and when by clicking on the poster to the left.

If you pop by, post a comment on the blog and let me know what you thought of the show.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Next Reading: PAS in February

Wednesday 7th February 2007, 7.30pm, Scottish Poetry Library with Gerrie Fellows for the Poetry Association of Scotland. Entry: £3 (£2 concessions)

I'm very excited about this. I've been attending PAS readings since I was a student and have seen numerous fine poets read for the Association, so it's a privilege to be booked by them.

Last Shore Poets of the Year

There was a good crowd in Mai Thai--the new Shore Poets venue--on Sunday night to hear Alan Hill, Jim C Wilson and Matthew Hollis. The readers strained a little bit to make themselves heard at the back, so I think we'll might be using a small PA in future. Nonetheless, it was a good reading.
I particularly enjoyed hearing Matthew Hollis, as I've known him since we were students. When I pitched up at Edinburgh Uni as a fresher 11 (yikes!) years ago, I had the scantest knowledge of contemporary poetry. Matthew--who was in third year at the time, I think--was the president of the Edinburgh University Poetry Society. I learnt a huge amount from hearing leading contemporary poets read their work on the society's programme and from discussing my and other student writers' poems at regular informal workshops.
Sadly, the EUPS has been in abeyance for some time. All enthusiasm, energy and support now seem to be focused on the Uni's MSc in Creative Writing, which strikes me as unfair to any prospective writers outside that programme, especially but not only undergraduates. Neither Matthew nor I did English degrees, and there were plenty other student writers in departments other than English when we were at uni.
Matthew Hollis has gone on to make a name for himself, with a fine first collection from Bloodaxe entitled Ground Water. Last year, he held the Wordsworth Trust residency at Dove Cottage. On Sunday, he read a clutch of new poems, written during that residency. It's a while since I read Ground Water, but I detected a greater maturing, a deepening and enriching of his voice in the new poems. They seemed to display a greater confidence, perhaps a stronger sense of emotional light and shade--not that emotional light and shade are lacking in Ground Water. What was certainly new was the engagement with landscape, specifically the landscape of the Lakes. It looked like he had a fair amount, so I'm hoping he's not far off a second collection.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


I've just had a poem accepted by The SHOp, a beautifully produced Irish magazine. The poem, "In Praise of Dust", should be published sometime in the next 12 months.
I've also been meaning to mention that Lallans recently accepted four poems in Scots, one of which is a translation of Rilke's "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes." I'm told they should be in Lallans 70, which is due in out in March 2007.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Temples in our Hearing

Rilke has been a significant figure for me for a while, although there's much of his work I've yet to read. When I lived in Berlin in the early 1990s, a friend gave me his collected poems in German for Chirstmas. The same friend later gave me the Letters to a Young Poet (in English, although I got my hands on a secondhand German edition a few years after that) and, last Christmas, sent me a CD of the Sonnette an Orpheus. So I was delighted to see a "Responding to Rilke" event on the Scottish Poetry Library events programme for Wednesday past.

The SPL's mezzanine floor was pretty packed to hear Don Paterson deliver excerpts from his new book Orpheus (an English version--i.e., not a straight translation--of the Sonnette an Orpheus) and Jo Shapcott read from Tender Taxes, her 2002 collection of responses to and versions of some of Rilke's poems in French. Quite a reading. The narcotic spirit of Rilke was firmly present in Paterson's versions. To judge by the reading, he has managed find a voice that is distinctly his but still recognisably Rilke in a convincing contemporary English. I'm looking forward tremendously to sitting down and digesting the originals and the new version side by side.

In Shapcott's work, the spirit of Rilke was somewhat less direct. I remember hearing her read some of the work in Tender Taxes about eight or nine ago. My French not being much good, I can't really comment on Shapcott's poems as responses and versions, but Tender Taxes looks and sounds like an strong and stimulating book. She calls it "a reader's book", that is, a continuation of the conversation she has with Rilke as a reader of his French poetry.

Some people get prissy about translating v versioning. Personally, I'm quite relaxed about it. Like Don Paterson, I feel both can be legitimate and illuminating exercises. In reality, there are and can be few if any one-to-one correspondences in the translation of poetry, even between closely related languages. This means that a translation is always a version to some extent. The most important factor is whether the translation/version works as a poem in the target language. This is surely part of the reason why each generation revisits great texts of other languages that have already been translated time and again.

After the reading, I wound up in the pub with some folk from the MLitt in creative writing at St Andrews. Ended up missing the train I'd intended to catch, and the next one. It was worth it though.

Friday, November 17, 2006

David Kinloch's Website

David Kinloch now has a website. It's pretty easy to navigate and contains poems, essays, an interview with David, reviews, translations, news and other information. Worth looking at if you're interested in his work.

Arvon Successes and Failures

The shortlist for this year's Arvon poetry competition is out. I entered, but didn't get anywhere. However, Siriol Troup, who read alongside me at StAnza this year, is on the shortlist. Gaun yersel, Siriol!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New Voices: The Crichton Crowd

I headed to Dumfries yesterday for the second of my two New Voice events with the Scottish Poetry Library. Lilias Fraser from the Library and I took the train to Lockerbie--a very civilised Virgin conveyance--where we were picked by Andrew Forster, who took us to the venue at Crichton Campus via a pretty decent coffee shop in Dumfries.

We arrived at the Crichton just as Helena Nelson was coming out to meet the AA man she'd had to call because she'd locked herself out of her car (with the materials for the workshop still in the car). Not a good start, but the AA van pulled in just behind us, sparing us what could have been a more than nervous wait.

Despite that inauspicious mishap, the workshop went really well. The participants were quite a different bunch to those in Glasgow. The age profile was significantly older for a start, but they also responded much more. That might have had something to do with its being an afternoon event (although the real low point of my energy is often around 3pm) or to do with the fact that most of them belonged to the same writers group. Certainly, the geography of Dumfries and Galloway seems to make for a stronger sense of creative community. Whatever it was that made them livelier than the Mitchell crowd, it made for an thoroughly enjoyable afternoon for us! Plus they almost all bought a pamphlet, in contrast to the two we sold in Glasgow (although to be fair at least one person at the Mitchell already had a copy).

So, that's the practical side of my New Voice involvement over. Even virtually it is passing, as I relinquish the front page of the SPL website to the other New Voice, Cheryl Follon (whom I've yet to meet, not having been able to make it to her reading at the Shore Poets last year). I've enjoyed working on the events with Lilias and Helena. It was good too to meet Andrew Forster--who mentioned in dispatches right next to me after StAnza this year--more properly than I have before.

I look forward to doing more of this sort of thing in future. I'll post something soon about my next readings, which are in the new year.

The Poets were in the Counting House

On Saturday night, the Shore Poets celebrated Stewart Conn's 70th birthday at the Counting House in Edinburgh. The evening, which was open to the public and more or less sold out with various bodies from the poetry world, involved readings from a number of poets whom Stewart admires and counts among his friends, including Anne Stevenson, Anna Crowe, Andrew Greig, Tom Pow and James Robertson and several Shore poets.
It's hard to believe that Stewart (the Shore Poets' honourary president of several years' standing) is as old as 70; his zest for life would be enviable in a man of any age. The celebrations were a fitting reflection of that joie de vivre and Stewart's fundamentally warm, generous character.
The Shore Poets have marked the occasion not only with the birthday bash, but with a pamphlet, There's a Poem to be made. The pamphlet, available in a numbered limited edition of 300, contains poems from Saturday's participants, Shore poets past and present, and a few other fine contempoary Scottish poets. It's not mentioned on the Shore Poets website yet, but I'm sure it will be soon.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Quieter Fire

Went to hear the fine Gaelic poet, publisher and scholar Derick Thomson (or Ruaraidh MacThomais in Gaelic) read on Wednesday at the usual haunt. The audience was far smaller than that for Sharon Olds. That, I suppose, is predictable, but it's also a poor reflection on the knowledge of the poetry-reading public in Edinburgh.
Gaelic poetry in or after the classical style is difficult to translate well into English, given that its dense sound patternings are lost, leaving a much barer experience, but Thomson writes in a modern free style that works well in English. His poetry is witty, lucid and rich in unexpected turns, such as the idea that people in 2121 will ask why we watched the box in the 20th century "instead of reading Plato", that Princess Diana "still speaks with a Glasgow accent" or that, when the Norsemen went ashore at Ness in Lewis, "they were afraid".
Thomson is a quiet, self-depricating man, which helps to make him an engaging reader. He is somewhat unexpectedly apologetic about reading the oringinal poems (the Gaelic versions), but not at all apologetic about his Scottish nationalism. (Still, perhaps one expects a little Caledonian antisyzygy now and again.) Remarkably, he's 85 and hardly showing his age. Long may he continue in that vein.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Last to Know, But Hey!

I've only just discovered that "A Rough Guide to Monday Morning", the first piece in Tonguefire, was poem of the week in Saturday's Scotsman. If I'd known on Saturday I'd have bought the paper!
Irritatingly, they have the title slightly wrong. I wonder whether that was a sub trying to shoehorn it into a preconceived notion of what fits the weekend.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Vocal in the Mitchell

Thursday's New Voice session went very well. For the first half of the evening, Helena Nelson gave a short workshop on how to raise your profile as a poet. In the second half, she interviewed me as a live case study. Poems were interspersed with the interview in roughly chronological order. Out of the 17 people booked to come, 11 turned up, but we anticipated some drop-off, and 11 was a good size for the group. It was a real mix of people at very different stages in their poetry writing and publishing histories.

One of the participants, Stephen Nelson, happens to a friend of a friend and had been in touch with me earlier in the week. He has just published, under his own imprint called Afterlight Press, The Faithful City, a beautifully produced pamphlet of what he describes as visual poems. They might be more usually described as concrete poems, but his use of colour and shade in the text takes the genre a step further. (I believe the pamphlet will be reviewed in the next issue of Sphinx.) It was a pleasure to meet and chat briefly with him.

Another notable participant was George Philp, one of the originators of Scotsoun, a company that has amassed a remarkable recorded archive of Scottish writing, song and music. Scotsoun's focus is on Scots, but there are also recordings of Gaelic and English-language writing in the catalogue. George is now retired from the work, but he's writing its story. Should be a fascinating read, given all the luminaries with whom the folk at Scotsoun have worked.

I was also encouraged to see someone who had heard me read at Reading the Leaves in Tchai-Ovna early in the year. Nothing better than people coming back for more!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Fully Booked!

I spent a chunk of today preparing for the New Voices event in Glasgow on Thursday. It's shaping up to be an interesting event from both sides of the podium, I think.
I see from the Scottish Poetry Library's events pages that it's fully booked! Not that I can remember quite how many people that means--it is a workshop so it won't be an enormous number--but it's kindae exciting/scary/flattering.

The Lithgae Gig

Friday's reading went really well. It was held in the lounge of Bryerton House, aka St John's Christian Centre, in Linlithgow High Street. The lounge set-up lent a cosy, intimate atmosphere to the evening, but it was bittie cramped for some of the 20 or so folk who came!
Guitarist Phil Melstrom kicked us off with three tunes, including those that are probably my favourites from Miles Davis's classic Kind of Blue and Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage--"All Blues" and "Dolphin Dance". He's a fine musician, as at home with bluesy and funky, spiky playing as with the smoother, more fluid side of jazz. Phil also played between each of the poetry sets and at the end. In fact, he even improvised an accompaniment to one of Douglas Briton's pieces. Unfortunately, the poem finished just as Phil (and, I suspect, the audience) was getting into it.
Rob A Mackenzie braved the opening spot with a set of new poems, a couple of older poems and pieces from his HappenStance pamphlet, The Clown of Natural Sorrow. I particularly enjoyed the new work he read, including his opening poem, a strong piece bit of surrealism-at-home, in which the Apocalypse comes the Barnton roundabout. Rob is a good reader, and I'm very pleased to see he's on the bill for StAnza 2007. You can read his report of the gig here.
Douglas Briton went second. His is a very different approach to either Rob's or mine, much more performance poetry or light verse in the way that Wendy Cope writes light verse: sometimes witty and amusing, sometimes addressing difficult subjects head on, but always employing a disarmingly straightforward style. I was really impressed with how smoothly Douglas read, as it was the first time he'd performed anything more than individual pieces in public.
I was the last poet on, with a mixture of new work and poems from Tonguefire. It was a good audience to read to. I knew most of the people there to varying degrees, but there were a couple of unfamiliar faces in the gathering. Rumour is that the experiment might be repeated again in future, possibly on the Linlithgow Folk Festival.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

"Pure Fire in the Hands"

There was a rare opportunity to hear American poet Sharon Olds read for the Poetry Association of Scotland on Wednseday night at the Scottish Poetry Library, so I took it. In the first half of the evening, she read mostly from her Selected Poems. After the interval, the usual PAS order was reversed, with questions and discussion preceeding Olds reading entirely from unpublished work.
In person, Sharon Olds has a quietly forceful presence, not at odds with but in counterpoint to the rawness and viscerality that characterises her work. The strengths of that work lie in her usually straightforward, almost prosaic language, offset by some striking images and the structural subtleties and repetitions within the open form she uses. The weakness of her style is that it can end up sounding or reading flat and prosaic but, in her best work, she cuts a thrilling figure skating on the line between poetry and prose. And it was a bold move to write in such a plain style with poets such as John Ashberry in the ascendency.
The themes of Sharon Olds's poetry are sex, the body, childbirth and the family, leading her to be classified by some as a confessional poet. She rejects the term, preferring instead to describe herself as "an apparently personal poet", and was eloquent on the tension between loyalty (or silence) and betrayal (or song) that anyone who writes "apparently personal poetry" must necessarily work in. For all the difficult experiences and emotions explored in many of her poems, she came across as having a profound respect for the subjects of such poems.
I must confess I hadn't really read her before Wednesday, although I'd come across some of her work. I bought the Selected and am making my way through it on the train to and from the day job. She's a powerful writer, and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to hear her read.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Wilfred Owen Week

Although it irritates me somewhat that the BBC uses the entertainment section of its news website to trail some of its programmes, pretending that the reports are real news, I was interested to see this report of Radio 3's plans for a Wilfred Owen week following rememberance day. I vividly remember reading some of his war poetry at school--"Dulce Et Decorum Est" most vividly--and hearing Britten's War Requiem, which uses some of Owen's work, in Edinburgh's Usher Hall when I was a first year student at university. Should be worth while tuning in to.

Next Reading on Friday!

My next reading is the Celebrate Linlithgow! one on Friday this week (27 October). There has been a slight change to the programme, as the line-up will now consist of me, Douglas Briton and my fellow HappenStance* poet Rob A Mackenzie, all bookended by jazz from Phil Melstrom.
The event kicks off at 8pm in Bryerton House on Linlithgow High Street. There will be soft drinks and what are generally known as "nibbles". Tickets are free and can be reserved by calling the St John's church office on 01506 517031.
*Does that make us both Chancers?

Apologies for Silence

Apologies for the length of time it has been since I added anything to the blog. I blame the cumulative tiredness I was suffering from before our week near Criccieth on the Lleyn peninusula in North Wales. It's RS Thomas country that is, but my main reading matter for the week was The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry, a fantastic anthology of translations from 20th century Welsh-language poets. I can recommend it highly.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Vital Sparks: Radio 3

What would life be without it? Radio 3 is the cut and polished diamond of radio in Britain. I love it for the breadth of its music programming. I love it for the fact it presents whole works by default, unlike the bargain basement Classic FM. I love it for the regular new drama, even if I don't always hear it. I love it for the intelligence of its general arts and culture review, Night Waves--head and shoulders above Radio 4's Front Row. I love it for the verve and invention of its new-writing programme The Verb (you must listen to tonight's edition online for Andrei Kurkov's short story). And, as this joyously inventive, hilarous, informative feature from the Between the Ears slot shows, it's been all this and more for 60 years.
Happy birthday, Radio 3!

Essential Reading

island magazine, published by Julie Johnstone's Essence Press is a beautifully produced, hand-bound biannual publication concentrating on poetry concerned with nature. I don't like to use the term "nature poetry" lest it conveys something twee, which island is not. Julie describes it as "new writing inspired by nature and exploring our place within the natural world".
Other distinguishing features of island are the space given to the poems on the page and the work by contributing visual artists. Taken together, the poetry, layout and artwork make for a unique periodical with distinctive, unshowy aesthetic.
I've just had work published in the new issue, sight-lines, which is devoted to monostiches and concentrates on the horizon and shore line. My piece is a sequence of monostiches entitled "Sketchbook of a Trip to the Hebrides". The other poets are Jane Hirshfield, Cralan Kelder, Bob Arnold, Robin Fulton, Matt Martin and Jonathan Greene; the issue's artwork is by Pat Law.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

New Voices: Dumfries: Correction

The New Voices event in Dumfries I'm appearing at is not at Lochthorn Library, but the University of Glasgow Crichton Campus, which is to the south of Dumfries. Details are therefore as follows:
New Voices
Andrew Philip

with Helena Nelson of Happenstance Press
How do you set about building your profile as a new poet – getting your work read, published, heard? Poet and publisher Helena Nelson will show you the ropes and help you develop a ‘writer’s CV’.

Andrew Philip’s pamphlet Tonguefire was published by Happenstance last year, and he’s one of our New Voices for 2006. The workshop is followed by a short reading of Andrew’s work and first-hand discussion of how he got started.
Monday 13 November, 1.30pm-4pm, Free
University of Glasgow Crichton Campus, Dumfries
Advance booking essential – contact Andrew Forster on 01387 253383 or email

Monday, September 25, 2006

The New Season Kicks Off

No, I've not undergone a road-to-Pittodrie conversion to the Church of Two Halves; the season I'm talking about is the Shore Poets autumn programme, which got off to a superb start last night with Jackie Kay, Christine De Luca, Mandy Maxwell and music from the Linties.
Mandy Maxwell is a graduate of the creative writing programme at Glasgow Uni. Her sharp, tight writing is very much grounded and rooted in Glasgow and she's a good performer. I think last night was her first proper gig in Edinburgh, although she read at the Shore Poets open night back in April. I've no doubt more will be heard from her in future.
Christine De Luca needs no introduction to anyone familiar with Shore Poets. With Shetlandic and English at her disposal, she has a dinstinctive, lyrical voice. Christine read beautifully from her latest book, Parallel Worlds, and new work.
The last time I heard Jackie Kay was at the end of my first year at uni--that's 11 (gulp!) years ago. She's a fantastic reader: warm, engaging, entertaining and endearing. For some reason--I suppose it must be lack of acquaintance with her recent work, to my shame--I was surprised at the amount of Scots in the work she read. Surprised, but delighted: it contributes to a rich and broad voice. Her set consisted of poems from Life Mask, new poems and one short story (cheat!). She read a couple of pieces that she described as children's poems; they lacked none of the sophistication and beauty of her adult work.
The Linties, of course, I have heard before and knew they'd be perfect for a Shore Poets evening, although I can take no credit for booking them for last night. They provided us with a mix of bawdy, bonnie and blythe songs in varying degrees of Scots and English, hugely entertaining and beautifully sung with great harmonies. Bands like the Linties show how much vigour and verve there is in traditional music in Scotland without the paraphernalia of popdom. Not that I'm at all averse to the mixing of traditional and other music forms either.
You can read the Linties' comments on the evening here at their blog. You can keep abreast of their gigs here.
I've also blogged a bit about the evening over at The Skraich.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

New Voices: Reading in Glasgow and Dumfries

One of the most exciting things to have happened to me on the writing front this year was my being asked to do a couple of events with the Scottish Poetry Library under its New Voices banner. Details of both are below.
New Voices promotes poets who have published one collection so far. Usually, a New Voice will do one reading in Edinburgh and one elsewhere in Scotland. However, as the vast majority of the readings I've done have been in Edinburgh, both of mine will be outside the capital: namely, in Glasgow and Dumfries. I'm particularly excited about performing in Dumfries, as it'll be the furthest west I've gone to read so far. The Glasgow reading will be only my second appearance there.
The events will also be ununsual in that they'll be a combination of a workshop on building a profile from Helena Nelson, who published Tonguefire, and a reading from me. Here are the details, fresh from the Scottish Poetry Library events listings:

New Voices
Andrew Philip
with Helena Nelson of Happenstance Press
How do you set about building your profile as a new poet – getting your work read, published, heard? Poet and publisher Helena Nelson will show you the ropes and help you develop a ‘writer’s CV’.

Andrew Philip’s pamphlet Tonguefire was published by Happenstance last year, and he’s one of our New Voices for 2006. The workshop is followed by a short reading of Andrew’s work and first-hand discussion of how he got started.

Thursday 2 November, 6.30pm, Free
Level 5, Mitchell Library
Advance booking essential – call 0141 287 2999 to reserve a place
Monday 13 November, 1.30pm-4pm, Free
Lochthorn Library, Dumfries
Advance booking essential – contact Andrew Forster on 01387 253383 or email
This season's other New Voice is Cheryl Follon; previous participants include Jen Hadfield and Tim Turnbull.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Celebrate Linlithgow: Poetry and Jazz

My next reading will be at the Poetry and Jazz event on the Celebrate Linlithgow! arts festival. The reading is at 8pm on Friday 27 October in Bryerton House. Tickets are free and can be reserved by calling 01506 517031. The other main reader is Douglas Briton, who writes in a kind of Wendy Cope-ish vein. There will also be a semi-open set of other local readers.
The full festival programme is available here. There's quite a variety of stuff on, including a couple of other poetry events.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Linlithgow Book Festival

The inaugural Linlithgow Book Festival took place today. I managed to get along to three of the events: the opening talk, the poetry workshop and the closing reading.
In the first event, Lithgae resident John Fowler talked on the subject of his book Mr Hill's Big Picture, namely, David Octavius Hill and his huge painting of the the Disruption of 1843. The Disruption, a significant event in Scottish history, occurred when the evangelical party in the Church of Scotland walked out of the Kirk's annual general assembly and formed the Free Church of Scotland. Hill, a Free Kirk supporter, determined to paint the event. It was suggested to him that he could speed up his work by using photography--then a new process--to capture likenesses of the people involved instead of sketching them. This led to his collaboration with Robert Adamson and to their pioneering photographic work, which includes famous portraits of Newhaven fisherfolk, as well as landscapes, architectural pictures and city views, including photographs of Linlithgow.
I first heard of Hill's Disruption painting and his partnership with Adamson in "Camera Obscura", the long poem that closes Robin Robertson's first collection, A Painted Field. To hear more about them and see slides of the painting was an enlightening and absorbing experience. Fowler, in engaging style, drew us into details of the painting and the stories surrounding those depicted in it. It's not the greatest piece of potraiture, but it is fascinating. And, as the first painting to use photography--and possibly (though this theory is untested and unproven) elements of collage--in its composition, it has an interesting and significant place in art history. The book should be worth reading.
I didn't go to the session on the history of the UDA, but I kind of wished I had, as it was referred to several times in Bashabi Fraser's poetry workshop. She seemed to assume that everybody had been at that event, which was a bit of a fault, but the workshop was relaxed and productive. I got a draft of a decent poem out of it, and other participants produced promising stuff. The session was held in a wonderful Georgian room in Cross House, the halls of St Michael's Parish Church. The carpet and curtains were criminal, but the plasterwork on the ceiling was really quite fine.
Unfortunately, the workshop ran simultaneously to a talk by Allan Massie on history and historical fiction, which I'm told was very good. Apparently, he was discussing the impossibility of getting at the truth about history and the falsification of history by historical fiction. I also missed the ballad singing that followed in the bar, but I got to the final event of the day: a reading by Iain Banks (to be confused with Iain M Banks, who is the same writer wearing a sci-fi hat). He read from his next mainstream literary novel, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, which will be published in March. I'd never heard him read before and am not, I must confess, deeply familiar with his work. He's a very lively reader and speaker, gesticulating with abandon and rollocking about his seat, and talks at such a rate and ramble when answering questions that it's sometimes hard to follow what he's saying. However, it all made for a hugely entertaining event.
The organisers must deem the first Linlithgow Book Festival a success. Despite less than aggressive publicity, the audiences were of a respectible size. And that so close to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I suspect that, with better advertising in and furth of the burgh, audience figures at subsequent festivals could grow significantly. May Linlithgow Book Festival go from strength to strength!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A to Z

I've just been added to the Poets' A to Z on the Scottish Poetry Library website. There's a short biographical note, a couple of links, a "books I love" feature and a poem--"Man With a Dove on his Head"--from Tonguefire. There's also a link to the SPL's holdings of my work. You can see my page here, but I'll add it to the links on the blog as well.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Scottish National Diction

The British Council Scotland website has some pages with new Scottish poetry. It's a good selection of poets, if a short one: John Burnside, Matthew Fitt, Ann Frater, Rody Gorman, Alan Jamieson and Jackie Kay. There are poems in Scots, English and Gaelic. Matthew Fitt's "Scottish National Diction" is a smashing poem with more than a hint of Eddie Morgan about it. There's a fantastic Gaelic response, "Errata", from Rody Gorman (the site calls it a translation, but it's not at all). Have a peek at Burnside in Shetlandic! Truly fanstastic, this trilingualism business.
(This is a translation of a post from The Skraich.)

The Skraich

I've decided to start a blog in Scots as well as this one. You can find it here.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Linlithgow: Festival Toun

I've just discovered that Linlithgow is about to give birth to a book festival. Over the three years I've lived here, I've often thought the town could easily house a small-scale literary festival. It already has a folk festival, and Celebrate Linlithgow!, a broader arts festival, is to take place for the first time this October. The inaugural book festival is a one-day series of events to take place a fortnight today. You can find the programme here. It's pretty good for such a fledgling event.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Des Canyons aux Étoiles

I must attend more live music. No matter how good a recording, it simply can't compare to hearing the resonances shimmer away into the rafters of the concert hall. And shimmer they did last night in the hands of the pianist Benjamin Kobler, the horn player William Purvis and the NJO Summer Academy, under Reinbert de Leeuw's baton.
Des Canyons ... is an epic work: 12 movements of Messiaen's inimitable colour, birdsong, space and rhythmic invention. Its programme is a double journey: while travelling through the deserts, canyons and birdlife of Utah, the listener also traverses a spiritual desert, via fear and awe, on into the life of the resurrected in the celestial city. I, for one, came away from the performance bathed in what felt like it must be the ecstasy of the saints in glory.
Perhaps nowhere in the work is Messiaen's compositional style more tuned to that ecstasy than in the eighth movement "The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran" (the brightest star in Taurus, apprently). Messiaen has the knack of transporting the mind to a position in which it seems to be surveying the whole of creation, which he does in this movement superbly. The strings and woodwinds create a cosmic sense of space into which the piano, percussion and individual winds float glistening strands of birdsong to paint the rapturous souls of the resurrected.
There is a lot of piano solo, not least because there are two birdsong movements for the pianist alone. That's one of the joys of the piece for me, and the piano playing was powerful. However, the only movement for solo horn, "Interstellar call", was the high point of the solo work. William Purvis conveyed its structure and emotion beautifully, and his use of the piano as a sounding board at certain points added electrifying resonances beyond those of the hall's acoustic and beyond those to be heard on the recording in my growing Messiaen collection.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Vital Sparks: Olivier Messiaen

Tomorrow evening, I'm off to an Edinburgh International Festival performance of Olivier Messiaen's enormous orchestral piece Des Canyons aux Étoiles, so it seems appropriate to inaugurate a projected series of occasional blog entries on the writers, musicians and artists who most invigorate me with a few words about Messiaen. Over the past few years, I've grown more and more interested in his music. I've yet to undertake any serious reading about him and his work, but his orchestral and piano writing affects me deeply.
Messiaen was a man of strong Christian faith and profound artistic originality. The combination has, apparently, puzzled other avant-garde French composers, but it is essential to the intellectual and emotional content of his works. He can hold the full richness and complexity of faith in a few notes. It never ceases to amaze me how a single Messiaen chord can express so much: the now and the not-yet of trusting God, the simultaneity of joy and sorrow in the soul's present adoration of Christ and its ache for the perfection of heaven. His suite for two pianos Visions de l'Amen is particularly full of examples of this, as is his orchestral work, Éclairs sur l'Au-delà.
The musical colour of Messiaen's work is breathtaking. He was a synaesthete, seeing sounds as colours, and used this as a basis for his musical composition. Birdsong was another strong element in much of his work. I often wonder how his work looked to him. It would never be possible for me to experience what he experienced, but the palete is wonderful and stimulating nonetheless. I've only ever heard his music on CD or on the radio; tomorrow will be my first experience of it in concert. I can hardly wait.

Verb, Pure Verb

I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to hear Seamus Heaney read at the Book Festival yesterday. Given that the tickets had sold out within hours of being released to us mere mortals, I had surrendered all hope of hearing him until a colleague of mine suggested that there might be returns. So I made for Charlotte Square first thing yesterday and joined the queue before the gates were opened.
Fortunately, there were returns, and I spent a good hour and three quarters in blissful anticipation of hearing Famous Seamus, browsing the bookshop and buying The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry and Menna Elfyn's Cusan Dyn Dall/Blind Man's Kiss. I had had a ticket to hear her read with Ciaran Carson on Sunday but hadn't been able to make it, so was pleased to see the collection--not usual among bookshop wares in Scotland--was still on the shelves.
Heaney was as precise and as full of glowing phrases in person as in print. He read solely from his recent collection District and Circle. Although there are some fine poems in it, the book suffers a bit from covering much old ground. However, that retreading is a conscious action on Heaney's part. Perhaps it's a function of his age and standing. From the size of the audience and the book's reception, it seems he can happily afford to revisit old themes and approaches.
My main favourites from District and Circle--for instance, "A Shiver", "In Iowa"--weren't among the poems Heaney read. I couldn't help but feel that the best of those he chose to read were the translations/versions of Horace and Rilke, which are some of the best poems in the collection. (In the Q&A session, he said that he doesn't have any German, so I don't know how he did the Rilke unless that was undue modesty on his part.)
Heaney's most interesting comments in the Q&A session were in response to questions on the role of the poet in the responding to world events. Following Robert Pinsky, he said that the poet's responsibility is "to answer what is happening". He formulated the aesthetic problem as being "how to relate your givens to the times" and instanced several different poetic approaches to the problem, among them Brecht's ("hopelessly reading the world" according to his political ideology), Wilfred Owen's and Isaac Rosenberg's.
This, perhaps, is where the reworking of the old ground finds its artistic validation: Heaney's primary givens--his agricultural Derry background; its linguistic, religious and cultural riches--are applied to the age of the "war on terror" rather than to the Ireland of the Troubles. This is Heaney extending the utterly local nature of those givens beyond the Irish social and political context to a global one. I say "primary givens" because it strikes me that the entirety of European literature is a secondary given for Heaney. But, not to be too Eurocentric, one must acknowledge that there is a locality to those givens too, which means that his use of them in the collection is essentially the same.
Anyway, enough of the analysis for now. After the reading, I joined the sizeable queue of devotees processing to the signing tent for the grace of the master's signature ("Seamus has to leave this festival to go to a party, so one book each, please," schoolma'amed Ruth Wishart). There he was, seated behind a desk on a raised platform with the line snaking towards him, the grateful snatching a few words with him, but never so many that the ever-attentive staff would chide them and hurry them on. Nothing I could think to say didn't seem foolish or banal, so I simply handed him my District and Circle with a mumbled thankyou (I didn't think I was that awed!) and looked him in the eye. He returned the gaze and the book with a valedictory "Good man!" I shuffled off, thinking warmly of the title poem of District and Circle and its recognition, as Heaney put it in the reading, of one artist to another.

Festival of Politics

Went to a couple of events on the Festival of Politics on Thursday. The first, the Royal Society of Arts lecture on the impact of technology on society and politics, was interesting but didn't enthrall me. The second event was billed as a discussion on Scottish culture, media and politics. Essentially, it was three journalists bemoaning the direction of newspaper and broadcast media management and its impact on the quality of journalism in Scotland and the UK. An informative if somewhat depressing session, it benefited from having the Scotsman critic and columnist Joyce McMillan as one of the panelists. She is a passionate, articulate and intelligent speaker and was the only panelist to discuss arts and culture.
McMillan's main bone of contention was the poverty of coverage for the arts in Scotland, even by Scottish media. As a Scottish theatre critic of long standing, she's well placed to comment. She pointed out that the appetite for arts and culture has burgeoned over the past decade or so but the space and resources given over to serious arts journalism have shrunk. Newspapers, she said, are edited on the macho assumption that sport (specifically, football) will sell copies, but nobody has tested whether good, extensive coverage of arts and culture could have the same effect. She didn't mention books, however, and the advent of the Scottish Review of Books, which is distributed free as an insert into the Sunday Herald. Okay, so one magazine does not a renaissance make, but it's a significant improvement on the previous situation.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Dampening Seams

Another Book Festival excursion yesterday evening. This time, it was to hear James Lasdun and Michael Symmons Roberts read from and discuss their second and first novels respectively.
Typical Book Festival weather is either warm and sunny, with festival-goers spread over the lawn of Charlotte Square, or tipping it down. Last night was the latter. Audience and speakers huddled in the tents and on the covered duckboards. Books in the book pavilions began to feel the damp. The rain cycled through crescendoes and diminuendoes on the roof of the Writer's* Retreat, bringing memories of camping back for more than just Michael Symmons Roberts.
I know of but haven't read Lasdun's poetry and fiction, which might well change. His second novel, Seven Lies, has just been longlisted for the Booker. It is set partly in Cold-War Berlin and partly in New York, where he lives. Having spent a seminal year and eight months in Berlin, I'm especially interested in versions of that singular city and its tortured history. And Lasdun's reading left the unacquainted hearer dying to know what happened next.
Michael's Patrick's Alphabet I have read. It's a gripping, dark, nuanced read. There is some wonderful description of the "edgelands" where much of the action takes place. I also noted a couple echoes of poems from his second collection Raising Sparks: the narrator runs into a dog whose coat is described in terms that echo "Sun Dogs"; a thermometer breaks in the narrator's darkroom (he is an ambulance-chasing photographer), as in the opening of the poem "Stills"; and St Patrick's use of the alphabet is mentioned in "First Things".
For me, a slight weakness of Patrick's Alphabet is the trajectory of the character Calladine, who ends up blowing up himself and a shopping centre. It doesn't quite convince me; it feels a little too obviously like a plot device. This character's descent into violence could perhaps have done with further exploration and explication. But then, the novel's primary concern is the narrator, the barriers he has built up and what it takes to break them down. He is a strongly written character, who carries the book well to the redemptive twists of its ending.
*Who is the one writer allowed to retreat to this venue?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Festival Three Pack

My first trip to this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival yesterday. I had tickets for three events, but could only make it to two of them. I couldn't make it to the poetry translation workshop with George Szirtes, which was the event I had really wanted to attend, but I managed to pass my ticket on to a colleague, who gave me a report and passed on some notes. Rob Mackenzie was there and has blogged about it here.
The other two events were a panel discussion about literary translation (interesting, but not fascinating) and a poetry reading: Paul Farley, Vicki Feaver and Hugo Williams, each of whom I'd heard before. Although Paul Farley had an irrititating tic of bending his books back so far and so frequently you thought all the pages would come tumbling out at any moment, he and Feaver were superb. Their work is imaginative and powerful. Farley has a pitch-perfect ear. His poetry puts me in mind of Don Paterson (who publishes him at Picador) but has none of Paterson's laddishness. I get a sense of rootedness from his work, but a rootedness that allows him to explore. Feaver interrogates and illuminates women's experience with a precise eye, leading the audience down unexpected paths. Fine work.
Hugo Williams, on the other hand, I can leave or leave. With some exceptions, his stuff started off tediously but, at some point, would pique my interest slightly. It sounded shapeless and prosy, and he read somewhat hurriedly. I simply didn't connect with him, but he didn't do anything with his material to make me connect with him. It didn't help that he began with a poem about letter-writing class in boarding school. The last couple of lines turned it into a poem about memory and writing, but not in a terribly interesting way. However, he lost me completely later in the set when he seemed to say we were in England. I can't stand that at the best of times, but it riles me particularly in festival season, when Radio Middle England and the London press suddenly remember the existence of Edinburgh.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Novel Gazing

In case you hadn't noticed, the Booker longlist is out and the media have begun their febrile speculation as to who will win the prize. (They never do that with the Forward shortlist, now, do they?) The BBC upholds journalistic standards by reporting on the bookies' odds rather more than the books, but The Guardian and The Times have made a better job of it.
James Robertson is on the list with The Testament of Gideon Mack. I finished reading it a week or two ago. The writing is a joy: fluid, gripping and witty; beautifully tuned and paced. As I noted in this post, there is a strong link with James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which is acknowledged in various ways. However, the narrative arc of Gideon Mack is different to that of Hogg's masterpiece and its structure more complex and multi-layered. The Scotland of Gideon Mack is a changed and changing creature, as uncertain of itself and as unreliable a narrator of its history as the central character. Like Hogg, James Robertson leaves the reader with more questions than answers, which is often what Scotland does to any of us who have thoughts about its present and future.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Little Sparta

Several weeks ago, I finally managed to visit Little Sparta, the late Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden. Finlay was a man of unique vision and creativity. With his collaborators, he transformed the bare land of Stoneypath farm into a poet-artist's garden, in which everything--the land, the buildings, the plants, the installations--is shaped according to a coherent overall vision. Although it contains numerous individual pieces of art, the garden as a whole constitutes a single artwork of tremendous invention and beauty. It is the most fully realised aesthetic I've ever encountered.
There's an interesting and informative interview with Finlay in issue 15 of the e-zine Jacket. I'm still pondering what exactly his use of "piety" means, and I haven't yet got round to reading the accompanying articles.
Ian Hamilton Finlay's son, Alec, works in a similar but equally distinctive vein. You can read his eulogy for his father here.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Alasdair Gray Has a Blog

I have just this afternoon discovered that Alasdair Gray has a website. As anyone who knows Gray's books would expect, it is illustrated in his distinctive style. It also contains poetry, plays, interviews, biliographies and a fragment of a storyboard for an "intended screenplay" of Gray's most famous novel, Lanark.

Gray also has a blogspot. Its sole illustration appears to be his self portrait in the profile. Most of the content is in the form of letters to various individuals, although the text of a one-act play called Goodbye Jimmy is also included.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Answers on a Postage Stamp

Does anybody know of, or have any good ideas for, a noun for a gathering of monostiches? "Sequence" seems somewhat overblown. My only thought so far is a "seam" ...

Monday, July 31, 2006

"100 Best Scottish Books of All Time"

Several weeks ago, my wife picked up the booklet that accompanied this list and poll. I pretty much ignored it when it was current last year, as lists like that tend to annoy me. (The idea strikes me as unimaginative and not a particularly useful way to assess whatever is being ranked. And I don't like the element of commodification I feel the process involves.) However, to my surprise, I've found the booklet an enjoyable browse for the most obvious room of the house.
One of the demerits of the format (namely, the lack of space available to discuss a book) is turned into an advantage: it forces pithy writing from some fine writers enthusing about some of their favourite books. Nonetheless, nothing can save the booklet from being just silly in some respects. I'm constantly irritated by the tendency of many readers and writers to equate "book" with fiction and, although the list contains works of non-fiction, it's still exclusively continuous prose. This leaves the entire history and contemporary landscape of Scottish poetry, drama and short stories to be discussed in three short paragraphs each. Simply absurd.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Apologies for Absence

Apologies for the absence of any updates to this blog over the past wee while. We've been without a phone line and, therefore, internet access at home since Tuesday. It's still not working, so I'm doing this from my work computer (in my lunch hour, I hasten to add). According to the BT workmen we spotted on Wednesday evening, a Scottish Power cable down the street exploded and frazzled the neighbourhood's phone cables. It blew up the junction box (or whatever you call it) and sent bits of it flying across the road, clattering on to somebody's roof at 1 o'clock in the morning.

Monday, July 03, 2006

So Nice To Come Home To

I arrived home on Friday to a most pleasant, unexpected piece of post: a pamphlet containing poems from the 2005 Amnesty International poetry competition, with my winning poem in pole position. With a nice sense of cheek and irony, the pamphlet is entitled "Extraordinary Renditions". You can purchase it from Anthea West, the secretary of Amnesty International Reading (that's the place, not the activity). The suggested price is £2.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

You need to know more

I have just discovered that a colleague of mine has a rather intriguing blog, entitled "More than you needed to know".

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Public Confession

On Thursday evening, I was at the launch of The Testament of Gideon Mack, the new novel by James Roberston--novelist, poet, non-fiction author, founder of Kettilonia press and, with Matthew Fitt, driving force behind the marvellous Itchy Coo project.

The venue, Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery, was jam packed with figures from the Scottish literatary world--I caught a glimpse of Alastair Reid at one point--media men and women and high heid yins of Scotland's arts bodies. Everybody was melting, so they opened the glass front of the gallery. It made little difference to the temperature in the depths of the throng, but the party spilled out on to the street.
The book owes a lot to James Hogg's masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in structure and, to some extent, content. However, although it's conscious of its antecedents, it looks very much like its own beast in its investigation of faith and belief in this day and age and of Scotland in the latter part of the 20th century.
I'm not given to buying hardbacked novels, but I bought a copy, as one does at a launch, and am looking forward to reading it over the summer.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Book Trade Goes to the Dog

Well, Ottakar's is definitely to be swallowed by the dog, not that I held out much hope that anything else would be the outcome.
"Support your local booksellers!" must be the rallying cry. I'm not averse to buying books online, but these days I'm more inclined to find out about a book online and order it through the local bookshop.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Wigtown Booktown Ghosttown

We were in Wigtown a week past Saturday. Came away with a nice wee haul of second-hand books, including John Berryman's Collected Poems 1937-1971 (doesn't include the Dream Songs, which I really want to get my teeth into at some point) and Octavio Paz's bilingual Collected Poems 1957-1987 edited by the translator and wonderful essayist Eliot Weinberger.

Wigtown, I have to say, felt rather dead. Maybe everyone was just away at Hay, but it wasn't necessarily due to a lack of people even though there appeared to be no bustle about the place; it seemed like something deeper. Interestingly, Whithorn, which has a similar proportion of boarded-up buildings and had a similar number of people on the streets, didn't share the aura of malaise. Maybe it's because Wigtown is so blatantly branded and Whithorn is more just itself.

Still, it's a beautiful and fascinating part of the country and I'm pleased with me books.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Artist on a Quest

Dave Martin, who's mentioned in this post, is about to embark on a year-long art project beginning with a trip from Egypt, through the Levant and into Eastern Europe and culminating in a show at the Royal Scottish Academy in 2007. You can follow his progress here.

There Were Words

Tuesday night saw the launch of There are words, the collected poems of Gael Turnbull, who died in 2004. Gael was a doctor, morris dancer, Liberal Democrat activist and endlessly inventive poet, though I knew of only the first and last of those aspects to his life while he was with us.

Gael's publishing life was lived in small presses and numerous pamphlets, so it was easy for a comparative neophyte like me to miss the significant volume of his work and the role that he had played in bringing American moderist poetry to a UK audience through his own publishing activities. A correspondent of, among others, William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting and Robert Creeley, he was no peripheral figure. Roy Fisher says on the back-cover blurb for There are words:

I heard that Charles Tomlinson's first response to the news of Gael Turnbull's
sudden death was, "I owe everything to Gael!" Those words could have been mine.

Not that Gael, modest almost to a fault, would accept any such talk. I remember his response when Allan Crosbie mentioned to him that he had recently heard how influential a role he had played: Gael simply smiled and said quietly, "Oh, you shouldn't believe everything you hear about me."

Well, whatever you have or haven't heard about Gael Turnbull, you can read him in There are words. It's a handsomely bound, substantial volume. Nice paper, too. One could perhaps wish for slightly better type here and there, but that's quibbling. You hear the man himself reading online at Shore Poets a few years ago and reading from his own and others' work in 1963, but it's most wonderful to hear the weight and lightness of his voice through the pages of the book.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

An Act of Class?

Reading this review, I was struck by the American reviewer's incomprehension of "the dichotomy ... of accessibility vs difficulty" (an incomprehension I share to a great extent, as you might know if you've read my post on Geoffrey Hill). I was set to wondering what it is that makes this tribalism so British. It's not as though American poetry isn't riven by its own tribalisms--it seems to have a barrelload of them--so why was it unfamiliar to Mr Schwabsky? Then it struck me: could it be that class, that perennial British obsession, is at the root?

What think you?

"We have come to clean the pipes"

Listen to this before it vanishes from the internet next week.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

EdRush gig confirmed

Monday 22nd May, at The Village, 8 - 11pm, £3: Foakies present:

TRAVELLING WAVERLIES. The Waverlies line-up will feature Bob Shields, Mike Dillon, Tom Fairnie, Mark Barnett, Nancy Somerville and Jane Fairnie.


Dutch singer songwriter BERNARD BROGUE, a superb songwriter and guitarist who will play an extended spot on what will be his only gig in Edinburgh.

The Book Trade is Going to the Dog

The Competition Commission has finally cleared HMV's bid for Ottakar's. Now tell me, how is it not lessening competition for HMV, which owns Waterstones, to buy Ottakar's? In central Edinburgh, there are already three Waterstones stores and only one Ottakar's store. The only other sizeable bookshop is Blackwells, and that company is in financial trouble too. Maybe HMV should drop the H.

Mind you, whoever takes over whom, it probably won't make a blind bit of difference to the fact that it's nigh on impossible to find a decent poetry section in any big bookshop these days. Tragically, small, independent bookshops are also under pressure from online sales. Nothing comes close to a good, leisurely browse among a good stock of books in a good shop, but might it soon be a matter of history?

Edinburgh Rush Festival

Heavens, Edinburgh is home to more festivals that you can shake a wad of tickets at! This one was brought to my attention by fellow Shore poet Nancy Somerville. I might be reading on the Monday night in the--ahem--Foakie Doakies event, but that's still to be confirmed. That's this Monday coming, by the way.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Hill Difficulty

I've been dipping in and out of Geoffrey Hill's new book, Without Title, lately. It's not his most immediately captivating work, but there are flashes of the Hill brilliance here and there throughout.

Hill is one of those poets considered difficult. I'm not about to deny that his work is dense and challenging, but I have a difficulty with the use of "difficult", especially when it's set in opposition to "accessible". To put the equation crudely, any readily understandable writing is "accessible", which is considered very good; any writing that is not readily understandable is "difficult", which is considered very bad. Question that, and you're elitst, which is considered very very bad.

The problem is that such an assessment is external to the poetry, as it is based on the knowledge and experience of the reader and the attitude they hold towards the unfamiliar. Some readers derive pleasure from looking up things they don't understand. I'm one such reader, even if I don't always have time and energy for it. Moreover, in an interview on Radio 3's The Verb, Hill once said not only that it's not necessary to get all the references in his work to enjoy it, but that he sometimes doesn't get them all.

An assessment based on accessibility/difficulty also closes down debate about the intrinsic qualities and merits of the writing. That's where the debate should lie. Hill can write exquisitely; he can also write real stinkers. He should be judged as a poet on the weight and balance of the good work against the bad.

Unlike some, I'm not against so-called accessible poetry per se--some of it is wonderful--but I believe it's important that the republic of letters not succumb to the tyranny of the accessible or the dictatorship of the academic.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Question of Culture

What would happen if, instead of constantly asking about the use of art, our society began to ask itself seriously about the art of use?

Debut Authors Festival Again

The Debut Authors Festival now has its programme online. The organisers say the lack of poets this year is down to a lack of debut poets. All the more disappointing, then, that participation in the unpublished writers jam session is open to prose writers only.

Festival of Scottish Writing

The City of Edinburgh Council's 2006 Festival of Scottish Writing begins this weekend. Don't think I'll manage to get to much, if any, of it. It's a varied line-up. There are a few Gaelic events on the programme, but I didn't notice any specifically Scots-language events. There ought to be one or two at least. (Admittedly, I had only a quick scroll through the pdf, so I might have missed something.) There are a few poetry events, one of which focuses on Asian writing. Sounds interesting, though I'm not entirely clear from the brochure whether it's all in Urdu.

A Taste of Salt

Cambridge-based publisher Salt has created a bulletin board brimming with literary news and virtual space to exchange useful and interesting information. At the moment, the focus in the news sections is on Salt publications, but that's only because the main people to have posted so far are Salt. Anyone can sign up and post. Looks like it could develop into a fantastic resource.

Friday, May 05, 2006

What Roddy Lumsden says

Roddy Lumsden has reviewed HappenStance and its publications for his blog on the Books from Scotland site. This is what he has to say about Tonguefire:

My favourite of the bunch is Andrew Philip's Tonguefire, a selection of careful, image-heavy lyric pieces dealing with the domestic and the numinous. I first encountered Philip, who now works as a reporter for the Scottish Parliament, when he was an Edinburgh University student a decade back, and it is rewarding to read this pamphlet, hopefully a step towards a deserved first full collection.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What Anna Crowe says

Here is Anna Crowe's review of Tonguefire in issue 2 of Sphinx (the "Common Reader" comment is a feature of the magazine):

What strikes the reader at once, reading Andrew Philip’s collection Tonguefire (with stylishly emblematic cover), is the sheer energy and power of these poems. The writing is muscular, urgent and assured, offering a wide range of forms, from the sonnet and rhyming, metrical stanzas to unrhymed free forms; and in moods ranging from everyday epiphanies to the mythic and visionary. Here are the opening lines of the first poem in the book, ‘A Rough Guide to Monday Morning’, with their crisp imperatives:

Chain your sleep to the foot of the bed,
open the morning like your birthday post…

His language is sinewy and arresting, never more so than in ‘Wandelvakanties Dicht Bij Huis’ (‘walking holidays close to home’), and uncomfortably close to home are these flashbacks of war that hit us in beautifully spare and flowing language. Here is the first walk, ‘in sight’:

We stopped in our tracks—
someone flicked on the poppies,
squinted at us down
the length of the dyke we trod, down
the long-barreled afternoon.

Philip can carry off a dramatic monologue while simultaneously bringing a painting to life, as when he lets us eavesdrop on the troubled thoughts of Mary and Joseph in ‘Diptych’, as they escape from Herod’s death squads, after Rembrandt’s The Flight into Egypt. Mary’s feelings of guilt and anguish are totally convincing and offer a fresh take on a familiar scene.

Sometimes an image falls flat, as in Joseph’s steadying the child’s head “like it’s the last nail for my coffin” (something about the scale, perhaps); or when Mary Magdalen asks in ‘Rabboni’ whether it is now “the sole imperative// to tell out at last/how much the full jar aches”—the image is truthful, the tone portentous—but these are small flaws in what is a finely-tuned collection of wide-ranging, fiercely tender, humane poems.
Anna Crowe

Common Reader says of Tonguefire: ‘A Rough Guide To Monday Morning’ was my favourite poem in this collection. The line which encourages the reader to “open the morning like your birthday post” is a very cheerful thing to do on any morning but especially a Monday

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Debut Authors Festival

Just received an e-mail with the programme for this year's Debut Authors Festival at the Traverse Theatre, 2nd to 4th June. Last year, there was a single event dedicated to poetry, with Matthew Hollis, Jacob Polley and Choman Hardi, chaired by Don Paterson; this year, the sole poet on the bill is Helen Farish, appearing with two novelists in an event about landscape and home.

From where I sit, it has a look of tokenism towards poetry about it, which I find thoroughly annoying. Nonetheless, the festival is a good idea and the events look interesting, useful and stimulating. I'll definitely get along to some of it.

(Note: the 2006 programme isn't on the Debut Authors Festival website at time of posting, but I expect it'll be uploaded soon.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ceilidh Culture Clubbing: the gig report

When I walked through the door at the Lot at about 11:30pm on Saturday, the stage was thrang with singers including The Linties and members of The Bothy Tams. Their set was drawing to a close when I arrived, but I was in time to hear the strong sound of The Linties close it beautifully.

Looking round, it struck me that, despite the cafe-type set-up, the audience was listening attentively, not chattering. I reckoned at least two people would be up for listening to my set, as I know Tracy from The Linties (we share a day job) and had spotted Gerry Cambridge shouldering the bar.

Gerry was there to play his harmonica along with Neil Thomson, who was on bouzouki and vocals. They turned in a fine set of traditional tunes, blues and original stuff, with some lovely playing, just ahead of me in the programme.

It was a tricky gig being the sole poet in the midst of a rich spread of music. The audience in general obviously wasn't used to poetry readings but was with me and seemed to enjoy it. Partly because they clapped after each poem, I found it harder to judge just how much they were into the work, but the set went well over all. I felt I was winging it a bit, not having known what kind of audience to expect and not being able to read them as well as usual. Nonetheless, several enthusiastic compliments followed, with comments on how much individual poems had been appreciated. Always gratifying.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ceilidh Culture Clubbing: more detail

There's a bit more detail coming through about the Shore Poets at the Ceilidh Culture Festival Club. Looks like I'll be doing a set around midnight this Saturday (15th April).

New Link: Diary of an Arts Pastor

I've just added a link to the blog Diary of an Arts Pastor, to which a friend pointed me. Interesting and encouraging stuff for those who're interested in the intersection of (Christian) faith and the arts.

Monday, April 10, 2006

What other people say

There are a couple of reviews of Tonguefire (the pamphlet, that is, not the blog) online.
Colin Will's concise review is on the review pages of the Poetry Scotland website. You have to scroll down quite a way or do a search for the title. He says mine is "a refreshing and distinctive new voice", which is good to hear.
An even more concise review can be found on Tim Love's literary references. Mr Love says the pamphlet

"Reminds me of a more sinewy, less liminal version of John Burnside."

I'll take the comparison as a compliment, but I can't help asking: does it make me a subliminal writer?
There have also been a couple of print reviews of the pamphlet. Anna Crowe gave it a very favourable review indeed in the second issue of Sphinx, the HappenStance chapbook review, but the review isn't online, unfortunately.
Also in print only is Jim Burns's review in Ambit 182. He mentions my "careful way of writing"; a pity similar care was not taken over the spelling of my surname, which is rendered "Phillip" three times out of the four it's mentioned. However, I certainly can't grumble about the review. Far from it: Mr Burns divulges that he has lines from "To Bake the Bread" pinned up above his desk and ends by saying:
"This is a slim volume ..., but it leaves an impression that is much more memorable than many bigger books. Andrew Philip [Yes! Only one l!] is a poet worth watching."

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Wee Picts and Mars Hill

Mars Hill, the blog of fellow Subway member Paul Burgin has a link to and post about Tonguefire. The main focus of Paul's blog is political, so I've linked to it under "less literary blogs".

Under "Theoblogical/Emergent", I've also added a link to Paul Thomson's wee beautiful pict blog. Paul's theological/ecclesiological musings are consistently stimulating, inspiring and challenging. And he knows heaps of interesting folk.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"With or without wings he is coming ..."

Michael Symmons Roberts now has a website, which I've added to the links. The site looks very nice indeed. It even has the potential for an online parlour game for those familiar with Michael's writing: the background for his name on the banner consists of a mesh of phrases from his work. So far, I've identified snippets of "Ascension Day", "The Lungwash" and "Angel of the Perfumes" and the litany of genetic code from "To John Donne". Anyone make out anything else?

As to content, one could wish for a bit more actual writing--a few essays or articles, for example--but there's a poem from each of his collections plus another on the front page, an extract from his first novel and good biographical and other information. The representative poem from his first collection, Soft Keys, is particularly well chosen:

"With or without wings he is coming ..."

You don't get many better opening lines than that.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Ruth Padel at Length

Went to hear Ruth Padel read at a Poetry Association of Scotland event in the Scottish Poetry Library last night. She's an interesting writer--possessed of erudition, intellect and striking emotional intelligence--and an engaging reader.

The reading included a spellbinding performance of the long title poem from her latest collection, The Soho Leopard, from memory. It's rare to hear poets recite their work without looking at the page--AB Jackson is one of those rarities--even when it's short, let alone 175 lines. Interestingly, Padel read most of the short poems but performed from memory "The Soho Leopard" and another long poem, "Writing to Onegin", from a previous collection. Neither poem rhymes or has a particularly repetitive (and, therefore, easily memorisable) rhythm.

"The Soho Leopard" is also quite discursive, which is one of its glories. Having read it on the page, I had not expected to find it quite so accessible in performance as I did, but perhaps my previous exposure to it aided my appreciation of its architecture. Somebody obviously found it less engaging and took up Padel's (self-evidently genuine) invitation to tell her if we found it too difficult to follow. But I could have listened to it over again.

Monday, March 27, 2006

"For Broken or Worse" Now Posted

"For Broken or Worse", has been posted on Spring Tides. The sequence is about the consequences of anger and depression in a marriage and is written in the voice of the wife. Section V from the sequence, "A Perfect Drying Day", won last year's Amnesty competition.

The Spring Tides website is very nicely designed: not too fussy or flashy and easy to navigate but not too basic or at all amateurish.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

"For Broken or Worse" on Spring Tides

My short sequence, "For Broken or Worse", will be published on the Spring Tides poetry group website in the next week. Look out for the link appearing under "Publications".

Ceilidh Culture Clubbing

Some of the Shore Poets, including me, might be reading at the festival club for this year's Ceilidh Culture Festival. Watch this space and the newly added "Readings" links for confirmation and details.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

StAnza 2006

For an overview of StAnza 2006, I can't better Susan Mansfield's piece mentioned below, not least because I got there only on the Saturday afternoon and left again on the Sunday before Andrew Motion's reading. But I always enjoy StAnza, whatever number of events I manage to attend. And I enjoy it as much for the contacts and conversations as for the poetry. Last year, bumping into Helena Nelson led to her publishing Tonguefire a few months later, which in turn led to my invitation to read at this year's festival. But that's another story.

The reading went very well indeed. The venue was small and atmospheric: an old undercroft with vaulted ceiling, bare stone walls and good acoustics. It was also almost full--always heartening for the reader. Audience appreciation abounded and kept coming, even into the beginning of the week. The best encouragement is when somebody who wasn't there says they heard I read well, which has happened several times. (And it being StAnza, you know the audience has some pretty quality acts against which measure you.)

I read a number of poems from Tonguefire--"Pedestrian", "Waiting for the Rains to Come", "Cardiac" and "Tonguefire Night"--followed by poems from the "Pilgrim" sequence (see this post) and three other new ones. Siriol Troup and Richard Price both read well. Richard is an excellent, quietly dramatic reader (if somewhat difficult to hear from several rows back at times, I'm told). Of the three poetries that were on offer at the reading, his is easily the most experimental and distinctive. Siriol's work is imaginative, often sharp and witty, and she comes across well in performance. The contrasts and balances made for a good reading.

Other pleasures of the weekend included catching up with various friends in the poetry world and meeting and hearing David Harsent, one of the main readers for Saturday night. The highlight of his reading was a superb extract from a new poem about tinnitus.

This year, StAnza included a pamphlet fair. My wife and I came away with a clutch of pamphlets, some by people we know, some by names unfamiliar to us. Here's hoping it becomes a regular feature of the festival.

What's New on Tonguefire