Monday, December 10, 2007

(((( comfort ))))

Last year, I exhibited three poems at an exhibition at the offices of our church here in Linlithgow, organised by my wife. This year, the exhibition has moved to the bigger space of the church building, expanding its range of media--already wide last year--and the reach of its contributors to include several people from outside the congregation. The blank space space of the sanctuary has been transformed by a batik installation that manages the tricky balance of bringing a strong central focus to the room without distracting from the pieces exhibited around it.

This year's theme is, as the title makes clear, comfort. The image in the flyer above shows one of the exhibits: "A Holding Place", by our friend Raine Clarke, who has worked on some Essence Press publications. It's pure Raine: beautifully delicate, seemingly simple and unassuming yet full of emotional and spiritual depth.

Instead of a poem, my piece for the exhibition is a certain book wrapped in a blue blanket on which are written phrases from the book. One phrase--"I will not look away"--is visible on the outside, but viewers have to unfold the blanket to read the others. In other words, they are actively invited to engage with the piece physically as well as visually and to discover the comfort inside.

(((( comfort )))) is open 12-2pm and 7-9pm daily today until Friday and 10am - 4pm on Saturday (15th). Admission is free, refreshments are provided and children are welcome.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

A Buyer Who Cares?

On a brief visit to Waterstones at the West End of Edinburgh's Princes Street yesterday, I was very pleasantly surprised to see quite an interesting poetry section. Instead of being populated by the usual suspects with one or two token others thrown in, it included a few American imports and a healthy selection of small press publications--among them a good handful of books from Salt--while even the Mighty Handful were represented by an encouraging range of authors. The shelf space is still not vast, but I came away with the impression that somebody who actually cares about poetry must be buying for that shop. I had a £10 Waterstones voucher in my pocket, and I had real trouble deciding how to dispose of it. In the end, I left with Richard Price's latest collection Greenfields.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Skating on Poetry Loch

One of the things I love about Shore Poets is that the format of our events often produces rich and varied evenings of music and poetry. October's reading with James W Wood, Christine De Luca and the wonderful, quietly intense Gillian Allnutt was no exception (the only problem being that Allnutt's quiet reading voice didn't carry well in the Mai Thai acoustic).

The reading this Sunday just gone was another case in point, with Rachael Boast, Nancy Somerville and David Kinloch, plus music from Ben Young. I'd met Rachael Boast before, but didn't know her work, so it was a pleasure to encounter such accomplished writing at Shore Poets in the newcomer slot.

David Kinloch's set consisted entirely of new poems, displaying all his typical richness and imaginative verve. He's working on a sequence of poems about Scottish painters, from which he read, closing with a poem that entertainingly imagines a painterly wager as the source of the recent controversy over whether Raeburn really did paint The Rev. Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch.

David is one of the driving forces behind the Glasgow Poetry Society, otherwise known as Vital Synz, which enjoyed a hugely successful launch early this month (I wasn't able to be there, unfortunately). There's an interesting programme of events coming up next year.

As well as organising the Vital Synz events, the society is running a new competition: the Edwin Morgan international poetry competition. Unlike most competitions, this one has a college of three judges--and an extremely varied one at that--in Colette Bryce, Donny O'Rourke and Richard Price. Given the diversity of poetics represented there, it looks like they're aiming to make it a stylistically broad competition, appropriately enough for a competition celebrating the protean Mr Morgan.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Blues and the Reds

Dropped by a wee gathering tonight at The Tun, the first throw in an fresh attempt to establish a self-sustaining network of Christians in the arts, media, entertainment and new media in Edinburgh. My friends Paul Thomson and the painter David Martin are behind this endeavour, a network that aims to encompass the blues and the reds*, as Paul puts it, whereas previous attempts have focused very much on the blue end. No Dave tonight (huvnae seen ye for ages, mate), but Steve Cole of Artisan Initiatives was there. I came away hugely encouraged, feeling like many of the splits that characterise my life at the moment were at least momentarily fused into a unity.

*The theologically conservative and the theologically radical, for want of more precise terms.

In Denial?!

On last week's edition of The Verb, Paul Farley opined that "we" are "in denial about rhyme" because, when "we" rhyme, "we" use relative rhyme*.

If you've read my Reasoning Rhyme posts, it won't surprise you to learn that this is, in my opinion, utter tosh. Far from being a denial of rhyme, relative rhyme is a more linguistically subtle and complex form of rhyme, a realisation of the potentials inherent in the rhyme system but repressed by half-baked aesthetically conservative statements like Farely's.

Note too the insidious nature of the statement: Farley doesn't actually say we shouldn't use relative rhyme, just implies that twin rhyme* is real rhyme, boys and girls. And who is this "we" anyway? I presume it is the mainstream poetry-writing fraternity, Farley being a self-confessed guardian of the mainstream.

I have nothing against rhyming, whether twin or relative. Yes, I will confess to doing it myself sometimes, but only in the privacy of a poem. Moreover, I like some of Farley's work, even if I dislike anyone positioning themselves as mainstream or bust. However, ill-thought-out statements that creep towards closing down possibilities in poetry rather than opening them up really rile me. Okay, so it was radio and maybe it was off the cuff, but it sounded like something that had been bothering him for a while. Thankfully, he was paired in this discussion with Eleanor Rees, who spoke more sense.

There is always a danger that I might make daft statements like that myself, though obviously not such reactionary ones on rhyme. If I do, betake yourself to your local arms dealer and purchase a small surface-to-air missile with which to shoot me down.

*My terms, not his. See here for an explanation.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


This is a substantially revised version of an unpublished poem that one or two readers of this blog might have seen or have heard at a reading. I'll leave it here for comment for a few days before removing it.

[poem deleted]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Rice at the Price of a Word

How many grains of rice are in an average bowl? Idle speculation, I know, but a pertinent question nonetheless when you're simultaneously donating rice to the UN World Food Programme and having fun expanding your vocabulary here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Radio Silence, Telephone Nightmares

Yes, it's a while since I posted anything! Apologies for the radio silence, but Linlithgow Book Festival, central heating replacement, certain Shore Poets business and putting together this guest blog entry for on writing poetry for Fiona Veitch Smith have occupied much time and energy. Several posts are brewing in my head. Meanwhile, here is some light entertainment (thanks to Penny Culliford for the video):

Friday, October 26, 2007

First Minister to open Linlithgow Book Festival

We are delighted to announce that Alex Salmond MSP, Scotland's First Minister and a son of Linlithgow, will open this year's festival. A short opening ceremony will take place in the Masonic Halls at 6.15 pm on Friday 2nd November. The ceremony will be free and open to the public.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fitbaw Crazy

Alistair Findlay, notable not least for The Love Songs of John Knox, has just edited an anthology entitled 100 Favourite Scottish Football Poems. More of that in due course but, meanwhile, here here is some related light entertainment, courtesy of the Tartan Army on its way to do its gentlemanly battle with the Ukraine. Proof that ordinary Scots and poetry are not oil and water:

Vital Event

David Kinloch is certainly a busy man this weather: besides being involved in the bid to establish a writers centre in Glasgow's Merchant City, he's the main force behind Vital Synz, a new Glasgow poetry society, which launches on Tuesday 6 November at Òran Mór with a reading by Liz Lochhead and Carol Ann Duffy. A high-profile line-up, and it's rare to hear Lochhead reading at all these days, since she began to concentrate on theatre. Unfortunately, I won't make it, but a society like this is overdue in Glasgow, so all credit and more power to David.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Becoming a Riality

A letter arrived the other day informing me that issue 63 of The Rialto is at the printers. Exciting news, as it's the first time I'll have had a poem in the magazine and, therefore, the first time I'll have been published in an English magazine. Not that I think it's better than a Scottish publication because it's English, but I'm pleased to be extending my reach south. Still, The Rialto is a good magazine, not least because it gives the poems proper space on the page. Personally, I can't abide the cramming of as many poems as possible into the available space. Just let the poor things breathe!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Orkney: Thursday

When Christine De Luca, Diana Hendry (with her partner the poet and publisher Hamish Whyte) and I touched down on a overcast but none too windy Orkney a week past Thursday, we were met very warmly by Pam Beasant, whose brainchild our visit was. While Christine sorted out her hire car, Pam drove Diana, Hamish and me to our hotels in Stromness.

Anyone who has visited Stromness will know what a quirky wee town it is. The narrow, flagged main street is so tricky to negotiate--what with pedestrians, parked cars and vehicles coming the opposite direction--that even some Orcadians refuse to drive along it. Imagine a single-track rural road with sheer banks of masonry and you'll come quite close. The rest of the town stretches the short way down to the waterfront or up the hill, much of it in narrow closes reminiscent of Edinburgh's Old Town.

Stromness is also, of course, the hometown of the late George Mackay Brown. Wander along the main street away from the hotels, shops and pubs, past the library and you'll find this unassuming council house. The only thing to indicate that it was GMB's home is the blue plaque on the wall:

Mackay Brown's is still a strong presence in the artistic landscape of Orkney, 15 years on from his death. There are mentions of him and quotations from his poetry and prose all over the place. I didn't have any of his work on my shelves before I went, so I bought the Collected Poems from the fantastic little bookshop in Stromness. The shop is that rare thing in this day and age: a real bookish bookshop, crammed with volumes of all kinds and with an interesting poetry section. One delight of the place is the slightly surreal and witty comments on the shelves where one might expect something denoting the genre. The only one I can remember was on the poetry shelves:

In celebration of national poetry day on 8 October, we will be closing.

Anyway, much of my first day in Orkney was not spent in Stromness. After lunch, Pam whisked Christine and me through to Kirkwall for an interview at the pokey and couthy wee BBC Radio Orkney studios. The recording was partly for the weekly Tullimentan (think that's the right spelling) arts programme and partly for Around Orkney. It was a slightly curious experience to come down to breakfast the next morning and hear myself on the radio.

On the Thursday evening, there was a reading at Woodwick House. None of us was involved, but we, of course, went along nonetheless for the fun. When Pam, Diana, Hamish and I arrived at Woodwick, there were flocks of starlings (at least, we think they were starlings) filling the surrounding trees in the half light. Rather eerie. That's what looks like bats in this unfortunately rather blurred but nonetheless atmospheric photo.

The house is another unusual place (anyone spot a theme developing?). Apparently the rooms don't have TVs. Guests are encouraged to walk or to read from the sitting room's wonderfully eclectic little library. The sitting room also contains an upright piano in a beautiful, ornate casing so abysmally out of tune that it can only be described as an unprepared piano. And, along with a varied selection of films on video and DVD, the only TV in the building.

The reading featured Orkney residents Ron Ferguson (former leader of the Iona Community), John McGill and Nigel Wheale plus Shetland writer Laureen Johnson. Quite a varied line-up of prose and poetry. Laureen's set was notable for being entirely--introductions, chat, poems and all--in Shetlandic. John read a gorgeous exerpt from his novel, The Most Glorified Strip of Bunting, in which the main character, marooned on a ice floe, is watching the aurora borealis. Ron read a mix of poems and football prose. Nigel read from his book and very effective new poems the arose from his job as a care worker on Orkney.

Music was provided by flautist Gemma McGregor and pianist Glenys Hughes, who is also director of the St Magnus Festival. They played pieces by the 18th century Scottish composer James Oswald. His work was new to me: a clear and effective combination of Scottish traditional music and European classicism. All the more surprising given that he was writing in the late Baroque era.

The evening passed convivially and a starry night came. That was the end of the first day for me on Orkney.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Writing Among the Merchants?

Maggie Graham, David Kinloch and Robyn Marsack are sending out a questionnaire about the possibility of establishing a Scottish Writers Centre in Glasgow, probably the Merchant City. An e-mail about it arrived in my inbox just the other day. The centre would offer services to writers at all stages of their careers, and to readers groups as well. Sounds a good idea. The survey takes less than ten minutes, so why not fill it out?

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Quick Intimation

Got back from Orkney yesterday after a fantastic few days. I'll blog about it in something approaching detail at some point soon. There will be pictures, though not too many. Now, unfortunately, I ought to go and wash some dishes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Packing Anxiety Cure Wanted

Well, it was a couple of hours ago, but I got over the anxiety and packed. Off to Orkney tomorrow with fellow Shore Poets. It's just possible there might be an opportunity to blog in situ, but I expect I'll write something about it on my return.

Calling all ex-teens

The message below was forwarded through an e-mail list. Not sure I'll submit, but it's a fun idea.

"Nobody Understands Me" - Call out for atrocious teenage poetry

Calling all ex-teens,

Part public-service, part anti-vanity project; we are putting together the most wonderfully, desperately, earnestly poor collection of teenage poetry we can source and are hoping that you can help us.

We will accept work from anyone over 20 but the work has to be your own, the subject something you can look back and laugh about now, and the quality along the lines of "it's a mystery how this has escaped burning!"

The glory will be non-existent as the poems will be printed anonymously, so this isn't a good option for anyone who is secretly hoping that someone will think their poetry is really rather good and offer them a massive publishing deal. Similarly, comedians need not apply, we're only interested in work which is unintentionally humorous.

Unfortunately we can't pay you; this enterprise is purely for fun and to celebrate a shared pubescent talent-deficit, however a lovely copy of the anthology can be sent to you for the meagre cost of home-printing and postage.

Please have a good root through your old journals and select us some thrilling oddities!Poems should be sent to

Please feel free to forward this onto anyone you suspect may have written poetry every bit as bad as yours.

Many Thanks

Philippa Thomas

Not Quite Back to the Forward

The sharp eyed among you will have noticed that, despite previous posts on the Forward prize shortlists, I've not yet commented on the results. The main reason for this, aside from the usual time pressures, is that so far I've read only one of the shortlisted collections in each of the book lists--John Burnside's Gift Songs and Daljit Nagra's Look We Have Coming to Dover!, which won the first-collection prize--and, until I have at least a couple of the other books under my belt for comparison's sake, I don't feel qualified to comment on whether I think the winners were the most worthy. I'm currently reading Luke Kennard's The Harbour Beyond the Movie; no distance through it yet, but hugely impressed thus far. Sean O'Brien's winning The Drowned Book is high on the to-be-read pile. I'll be back to this topic, time permitting.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Things are coming together for the Orkney trip. Besides the reading with Christine De Luca and local Orkney writers, I'll be leading a workshop for an S1 class (non-Scots read 12-year-olds) at Kirkwall Grammar School on the Friday morning (an 8.50 start--gulp!). Should be fun, although the last time I was in an S1 class was probably when I was part of one.

Meanwhile, here's the poster for the weekend's activities, courtesy of Pam Beasant, the George Mackay Brown writing fellow, and initiator of the exchange.

Monday, September 24, 2007

On the Line

In contrast to prose--which, being continuous, pretends to a form of wholeness--poetry, because it is divided into lines, is equipped in its structure to reflect and deal with the brokenness of the world. This it holds in tension with a more intense and therefore more whole scrutiny of language.

How can someone accept the monostich and not the single-line stanza? The latter's acceptability is surely a logical extension of the former's or of the assertion that the line is the basic unit of verse. The two amount to the same thing at the end of the day.

The line has this equivalence to harmonic progression and cadence in music: it is the place where tension is created and resolved. Good line breaks create and resolve (or not, as necessary) tension in the poem's sense, rhythm or meter and consonantal/vocalic music.

Each poem--each line--must find its own balance of tension and release. If the poem--if the line--is unsuccessful, are the tension and release out of kilter?

I said "Good line breaks create and resolve ... tension", but tension and resolution can take place within a line. Otherwise, how could the monostich be anything other than tedious?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

LBF Website

The Linlithgow Book Festival website has experienced a few--ahem--technical problems, but we've fixed 'em. If you've tried to access it and failed, all should now be well. The programme on the front page has also been updated with a little more information about the renga and the Wallace event I'm involved in. And you can now subscribe to the site's feed.

Picasso on Paper

One of the pleasures of living near Edinburgh is being able to see the major Festival-time exhibitions once the biggest crowds have gone. Although family circumstances are not the most conducive, I had the opportunity yesterday to see "Picasso on Paper" at the Dean Gallery. And I'm extremely glad I went.

As the title implies, the exhbition consists of works on paper: drawings, etchings, lithographs and linocuts from throughout Picasso's career*. It is simply stunning. I knew that Picasso changed style and approach with similar alacrity and innovation to Miles Davis in jazz, but to be presented with the development so clearly and richly was a revelation.

Some people think Picasso overrated. Personally, I found the work by turns beautiful, intriguing, vulgar, moving, funny, tender, disturbing and exciting. One can dislike the style and even the content, but there is no question about the man's astonishing creative imagination and technical ability--he was almost constantly innovating techniques, even in processes he'd only just learnt. Such emotional, stylistic and technical range is surely one of the things that makes for greatness in art.

Picasso's combination of endless reinvention and technical genius must be a challenge to any creative artist who encounters it. It could be enervating--you might think "How can I ever match that creativity in my field?"--but I came away from the show exhilarated and fired up. Of course, it remains to be seen whether that comes out in my writing. Discernable effect or no, I'm glad of the stimulus.

Incidentally, "Picasso on Paper" is apprently the first major Picasso show in Scotland. Let's have more! There is an accompanying exhibition, "Picasso: Fired with Passion", at the National Museum of Scotland. I haven't yet seen it, but it's on a bit longer. I hear it consists mainly of ceramics, as the title might lead you to think.

*I really mean throughout: the earliest piece was made when he was 17, the latest when he was 90.

Friday, September 21, 2007

More on Orkney

The visit to Orkney with the Shore Poets exchange in October is beginning to shape up. It looks like it will involve one reading--on Saturday 13th along with Christine De Luca and local writers in the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness--and at least one school visit the previous day. There might be other visits to schools and/or writers groups, but I'm sure there'll be plenty eating and drinking whatever else happens! Diana Hendry and Ian McDonough are scheduled to read on Friday 12th October at Orkney Library, Kirkwall. They'll also be doing some school/writing group visits. I'm looking forward to it.

Speaking of the Shore Poets, don't forget the next reading: Polly Clark, Jilly Garnett and Ian McDonough, with music from Bob Murray and Friends, on 30 September in Mai Thai Cafe Bar.

Great Grog Gig

Readers of Rob A Mackenzie's blog Surroundings might recall a comments thread a while back about the idea of a Nov 4th reading with Roddy Lumsden, AB Jackson, Rob and myself. Well, the gig is confirmed. It should make for a good night, though I expect I'll be frazzled by the end, what with it also being the weekend of the Linlithgow Book Festival. Hope to see some of you there. Here are the details:

Roddy Lumsden, AB Jackson, Rob A Mackenzie and Andrew Philip
7.30pm, 4 November 2007
Great Grog Wine Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh (50 metres left from Hanover Street if walking from Princes Street)
Entry is free.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Remember "poems on pillows"? (New readers start here then follow the trail to here and here.) Well, I don't know why I should further humiliate myself by saying this, but there's a page for the project on the Ten Hill Place website. It features my commissioned poem just about legible on the postcard (not one of my best by a long way) and one of the publicity shots of Richard, Elspeth and me. Oh dear.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Reading, Do You Find Yourself ... ?

I've been thinking about the way that I and other writers use the pronoun you in poems and realising how strong an antipathy I have to its being used to stand in for the first person. I'm not talking about the colloquial use of you as a replacement for the often bothersomely formal impersonal pronoun one, but about poems that seem to address the reader/hearer when they're actually telling us about what the writer/speaker is doing.

For an example, listen to the poem that set me off on this train of thought: Jacob Sam-La Rose's aubade "Waking, You Find Yourself ...". Certainly not a bad piece of writing, but it suffers from this problematic you.

And here's the problem: This you pretends to generalise a particular experience; it tells the reader "you do/see/think this" when, in fact, they don't and quite possibly wouldn't or couldn't for any number of reasons. It attempts to steer around the ambiguities and problems of the poetic I; it neither steams ahead with the first person nor engages with postmodern games and doubts about the self. It can't decide whether it wants distance or intimacy and, instead, opts for something that purports to provide both.

Is this approach mainly an affectation of younger writers? I used to do it now and again, but I don't think I've fallen into that trap for a good six or seven years at least. In the flush and overconfidence of youth, is it too easy to think that something we experience is universal? Or is it a lack of confidence that leads the younger writer to push for universality by slipping into the second person?

Whatever the answer to those questions, it seems to me that you would be best reserved for instances in which there is a clear addressee--a named dedicatee or one unnamed but obvious--or for use as an impersonal pronoun where standard grammar would require one. It is possible to use you to address oneself in a poem if that's made clear in the title, for instance, as in my poem "Notes to Self".

Poems like Sam-La Rose's are probably best rendered using the first person or, if the poet wants more distance, the third. Of course, the third person in English (and many other languages) ties down the gender of the character in the poem, which might or might not be an issue. Then again, the you I'm arguing against also gives the question of gendered poetry a bodyswerve, and is that really acceptable?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Mr Mackenzie's Manuscript

If you've been following my and Rob A Mackenzie's posts about our manuscript swap, you'll probably be waiting for the more detailed comments I promised on Rob's poems*, so here they finally are.

There's a lot of very good stuff in Rob's MS, with a few really fine poems. Think of Rob A Mackenzie, and you're likely to think of surreal, ironic, witty narrative poems. Many of the strongest and most distinctive pieces in the manuscript are just such. They are fresh and contemporary and their level of irony is just right: never arch, too knowing or clever-clever but playful, even though the material is serious.

These poems support Rob's statement that his writing follows "the softer side of the New York School and ... European surrealism". Nonetheless, his voice also sounds distinctly Scottish to me. It's not particularly a matter of vocabulary, as there's almost no Scots in his MS**. Nor is it necessarily a matter of geographical or cultural references. The Scottish flavour comes, I think, from the way Rob deploys his wit and irony, mixed often with genuine passion and commitment. I'd go so far as to say that it feels quite Glaswegian, a subtle reflection of the best parts of that city's distinctive character and humour mingled with the European and transatlantic influences.

Here we have that good old Scottish internationalism again, which also puts me in mind of Edwin Morgan, whom Rob has cited. I can hear echoes of Morgan's voice in the mixture of international influence, Glasgow exuberance and formal variety but Rob's voice is still very much his own.

All in all, Rob's work is a highly entertaining, stimulating read. He has decided to keep writing for a few more months before sending an MS out. To judge by the present selection, he's going from strength to strength, so I'm sure those few months will bring some excellent poems into being. I'm looking forward eagerly to putting his first collection on my bookshelf (and, of course, to taking it down). Meanwhile, if you haven't already bought a copy of The Clown of Natural Sorrow, what are you waiting for?

*You can read his comment on my MS here.

**The confectionary and culinary terms "soor plooms" and "bridie" are the only instances I can think of.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Folk Festival Reading Update

A quick update: Jennifer Williams will now be reading with me at the Linlithgow Folk Festival gig. I'm also trying to organise some music for it, but that's not confirmed as yet.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On Joining the Ranks of the Poetcast

I now have an entry on Poetcasting. Click here to go to the page and play or download MP3s of me reading "The Invention of Zero", "To Bake the Bread" and "Tonguefire Night" as well as my Scots translation of Rilke's "Der Panther". It's a long time since I heard myself reading my work, and I'm pretty pleased with the way it sounds. Hope you like it too, if you care to listen.

Recordings of a few more folk from the Arvon course will be added over the coming weeks, apparently. I'll keep an eye out and post when it happens. At the moment, the only other Lumb Banker to be found on the site is performance poet Mim Darlington. I particularly like her "English Lesson".

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Linlithgow Book Festival now has a website. Drop by and check it out. Note the additional event on the Sunday afternoon.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Lithgae Folk Festival Gig

Readers of this blog and Rob Mackenzie's might remember the reading that we did last year in Linlithgow as part of the Celebrate Linlithgow! arts festival. This year, I'm reading as part of the town's longest running festival: the Linlithgow Folk Festival. At the moment, it looks like I have the bill to myself, despite my best efforts to get others to share it with me. But watch this space. Here are the details:

Date: Friday 7 September 2007
Time: 8 pm
Venue: St John's Christian Centre, Bryerton House, 129 High Street, Linlithgow
Entry: Free but ticketed. Opportunity to donate on the door. Tickets available from Blast-off Books, Linlithgow

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Civil Note on the Press

Imagine my surprise, on flicking through this week's Guardian Review to find that the book of the week is not only a collection of poetry but a new book by Geoffrey Hill, A Treatise of Civil Power*. At last! The Guardian has been supportive of Hill for a while, but I don't remember the last time the Review gave that accolade to any volume of poetry. Nonetheless, I was disappointed to find no other poetry reviews in the paper. A ridiculous situation. After all, you wouldn't expect there to be no further fiction reviews if the book of the week was a novel.

*Strictly speaking, this isn't really a new book as far as I can gather, given that a volume of the same title was published by Clutag Press in 2005. Penguin's page for the book doesn't show the contents, so I can't ascertain whether the volumes are identical, although the titles mentioned in the review seem to indicate that they are at least substantially the same. The Clutag edition is now sold out; I wasn't quick enough on the mark to get a copy, but I think it was signifcantly dearer than the Penguin edition anyway!

At last: a note on Lumb Bank

Some kind of note on the Arvon course of a few weeks ago is certainly overdue. Matthew Hollis and Colette Bryce both gave useful and encouraging feedback and advice alongside interesting, stimulating workshop discussions and exercises. As the course was billed as being about working towards a collection, it is a tad irritating that they opted to hold the session on assembling a manuscript and approaching publishers on the Friday morning. Since I went to Lumb Bank to focus on forming a manuscript rather than to write new work, the course would have been even more beneficial for me if that session had been held earlier in the week. Nonetheless, it was invaluable. I mean, how often do you get to hear about that process from someone who knows it from both sides--poet and publisher--as Matthew does?

Still, it was a great week. The other participants were a lively, fascinating, varied bunch and I suspect several of us will keep in touch. Among them was Lorraine Mariner, whose wonderfully funny, warm and moving pamphlet Bye For Now was published by The Rialto in 2005. Lorraine, who has the privilege of working at the Poetry Library in London, is also shortlisted for this year's Forward prize for best single poem. Gaun yersel Lorraine!

The crew of the good ship Lumb Bank also contained Alex Pryce of Poetcasting note. Alex--the youngest*, cheekiest and sparkiest of us--recorded as many of us as would brook the microphone, so watch out for a familiar face appearing on Poetcasting some time in the reasonably near future.

Visiting reader for the course was Clare Shaw**, whose collection Straight Ahead is published by Bloodaxe. I hadn't heard or read her before the course. She's an energetic, engaging reader for all that her work covers some quite harrowing, intense ground.

Lumb Bank is also a beautiful place. It's set in a gorgeous heavily wooded valley which looks down towards Hebden Bridge. My paltry set of photos from the week might give you some impression of what it's like. There are more to be found on Lumb Bank's own Flickr photo stream.

Suffice to say it was an extremely useful and hugely enjoyable week. Recommended.

*The oldest had his 81st birthday during the week.

**The front page of this link is a garble of code at the moment but the rest is fine.

Order! Order!

I have it: a draft collection-length manuscript with an order I think works! Now to garner a few second opinions before I start seriously thinking about what to do with it. Rob Mackenzie and I will be swapping back on Monday, so I'm looking forward to reading his comments on my work.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Courting the Fringe Audience

I'm planning to take part in the Scottish Poetry Library's courtyard readings tomorrow, Monday and probably Tuesday. Like all open sessions, they can be extremely hit and miss but they're good fun and an interesting opportunity to read to an often entirely new audience. It'll be a good opportunity to plug Postscript as well.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Marvellous Madness Begins

It's August, there's a downpour a day and Edinburgh has brigadooned into the Radio 4 consciousness once again. Must be festival time. Of course, by "festival" I mean not only the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, but the Festival of Spirituality and Peace, the Edinburgh book fringe (which seems to be so unofficial this year that it lacks any separate publicity), the Edinburgh Art Festival and probably several other festivals I've heard nothing about yet.

I long ago abandoned hope of navigating the seven circles of the Fringe programme* and now tend to focus my attention on the Book Festival first, then the International Festival and the Film Festival with glances at Fringe reviews. However, my first taste of Edinburgh's 2007 festival vibe, courtesy of a tip-off from Rob A Mackenzie, was a chunk of Luke Wright's Poetry Party on Saturday night. I won't repeat what I said here and here about performance poetry. Not all the names on the bill were performance poets as such, but that was the overall style. I heard only a small selection of them: Joe Dunthorne, Tim Turnbull, Tim Wells and Martin Newell, as well as Luke Wright, who performed one piece in between each set. Tim T was the best for my money**--he's always entertaining. I'd expected Dunthorne's stuff to be more interesting than it was, but didn't know what to expect from the others.

Still, it was a great opportunity to chat with Rob and catch up with Roddy Lumsden and Andy Jackson, neither of whom I'd seen in ages. And I managed to make it to the pub for one drink with Rob, Roddy, Andy and co. The pub in question being the Meadows Bar***, there were faint shades of the student hours spent drinking with sundry student and grownup poets.

By sober contrast, I dipped into the Book Festival on Sunday morning for a reading by Nick Laird, launching his second collection, On Purpose, and Daljit Nagra. Despite costing £7.00 and starting at 10.15 am, it was as well attended as the poetry party. Nagra read first. Much of the work he read demands a good performance, which he certainly gave, but it also has a much more interesting linguistic texture, signficantly greater depth and a greater awareness of the literary tradition than the animal known as performance poetry. Laird is a more straightforward lyrical, literary poet, a voice emerging from the Northern Irish tradition in the line of Heaney and Muldoon. Some lovely writing. He had a nice line in self-depricating commentary on his own introductions to the poems. I'm looking forward to reading Nagra's and Laird's collections. I have Nagra's Look We Have Coming to Dover! and Laird's To A Fault on hold at the Scottish Poetry Library and bought On Purpose.

*Comedy, Music, Events, Comedy, Theatre, Visual Arts and Comedy.

**Not that any money was involved, as the event was free.
***Which served a watery pint of the usually marvellous Caledonian 80 with no head to speak of.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Brief Note on Wednesday

Wednesday's interview for the Scottish Book Trust mentoring scheme seemed to go well, but I'm not really one to read aright the entrails of a 40-minute chat with two strangers, so who knows what the outcome will be? Two SBT staff grilled me in the nicest manner possible about my "project", my expectations of being mentored and any impediments to my participation. I applied for a mentor to spur me on to finishing off a full collection of poetry, which is also why I went on last week's Arvon. There are only five places on this round of the programme, so I'll be extremely pleased with myself if I get one, but it feels like these opportunities are coming along at the right time. I don't know when I'll hear, as there were a few people who couldn't make Wednesday's interviews and no decisions will be made until after they've been grilled. Time to get those tenterhooks out.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Back and Looking Forward

Just back home today from a few days with the in-laws either side of the course at Lumb Bank. A fine week, but more about that later. At the moment, I'm trying to apply my rather travel-weary mind to the fact that I have an interview for a place on the Scottish Book Trust's mentoring scheme tomorrow afternoon!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Gearing Up

I'm off to a course with Matthew Hollis and Colette Bryce at the Lumb Bank Arvon centre tomorrow, so this online tongue will stop wagging for the next five or six days at least. Still, there's a reasonably amount for you to enjoy in the virtual cupboard under the stairs.

It should be a fun week. I know Matthew Hollis from his days at Edinburgh University, when he was president of the university's poetry society. He was a couple of years ahead of me and was largely responsible for making EUPS an interesting place to be. I last saw him when he read for the Shore Poets in November. Colette Bryce I met and chatted to briefly when she read for the Shore Poets in, I think, 2003. The course is about working towards a first collection, so it comes at just the right point in time for me.

Speculating as to what kind of people the other course participants might be is always* fun but a little less necessary in this instance, as it transpires that Alex Pryce of Poetcasting note is going on the same course. She'll have her podcasting gear with her, so it looks like I'll be recorded and cast ahead of the expected schedule**. Poetcasting is an impressive project, all the more so given that it's the brainchild of a 19-year-old student. It's one of the most interesting and vibrant UK poetry websites--unique in its mix of emerging and established voices, performance poets, mainstream literary poets and more experimental writers--and I'm looking forward to meeting the person behind it.

*I say "always", but I've only ever been on previous Arvon course, which was way back in 2002.
**Alex is planning a Scottish recording trip early next year.

On the Hard Rain

Today's Sunday Herald contains reflections by John Burnside stemming from the recent floods in England and Wales. It's a typically intelligent, meditative piece written in the considered, weighed and weighted voice that admirers of Burnside cherish. There's no hint of hysteria, not even green hysteria, in his futurology* simply a measured meditation on what the increased threat of flooding demands of us.

*Let's face it, the finest poets are often the unacknowledged futurologists of the world and Burnside is one of our finest.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

As you'll know if you're a regular visitor to these virtual parts, Rob A Mackenzie and I swapped manuscripts nearly a fortnight ago. I've had a read-through of Rob's MS and will comment properly on it in due course, but suffice to say for the moment that it's very good and a lot of fun in places.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in how one might put together a poetry manuscript, you could do worse than visit Rob's series of posts related to the process. Be sure to read the comments streams. The latest of these posts muses on the relation between what gets into a magazine and what gets into a collection. It doesn't particularly mention how changes in one's own writing affect these choices. For instance, the MS I swapped with Rob doesn't contain my most published poem, with which I chose to open Tonguefire, because it no longer feels to me like a piece of my writing.

Of course, this is connected to the notion of voice, a discussion of which is developing in Rob's posts. Some poets develop single strong, distinctive voices. John Burnside comes to mind in this regard; he has developed a style that is a cartography of a mind. It's a highly wrought object that he burnishes further with every new collection; a single poem extended throughout his writing life.

Other writers cultivate range and variety. Edwin Morgan is an obvious name to drop here, as is WN Herbert. Don Paterson might also fit into this category to a certain extent. Certainly, any of us who write in more than one language will find variety creeping in.

If a published collection is a public representation of a poet's development to date, the question that the writer and editor must ask themselves in putting it together is whether and how a given poem fits into not only the development but the representation. It can and should only ever be partial. After all, I don't imagine that any readership I might have will particularly want to read what I wrote on my off days. Therefore, a good sense of the picture one wants to present to the poetry reading world is probably helpful.

For my part, I feel more inclined towards range and variety than the single voice. That's what I hope to cultivate, and I think I've had some success in my most recent writing at least. But there must still be some sensibility to connect the various voices, styles or approaches. I hope I've achieved that as well, but only time and the reactions of readers will tell.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Recently Added

In the absence of the inclination or opportunity to say anything else at this moment, due to a bout of summer indolence, I'll highlight a couple of additions to Tonguefire:

  1. A list of the poems of mine that are published online.
  2. A poll on the Forward best collection prize shortlist (top of the sidebar).
  3. Additions to the blogroll: Reginald Shepherd, Todd Swift and Ben Wilkinson.
Now, shouldn't you be outside enjoying the momentary burst of sun/view of yet more cloud?

Monday, July 23, 2007

How Listening Pays Off

Having lauded Fiona Sampson's Guardian Unlimited workshop (which I have failed to complete), I thought I should mention her choice of the resulting poems. It forms a nice little compendium of significantly different approaches to the practice of listening--a clear demonstration that the workshop exercise is a good one, I think. There's much to learn from this.

I must pay more attention to future Guardian workshops. I've often glanced at them before, but never actually tried them out or read the results with anything more than cursory attention. Shame on me!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fringe First!

It looks like my dulcet tones will be gracing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the first time ever* this year: I have a 10-minute reading slot in the Postscript show at Diverse Attractions on Monday 20th August and Wednesday 22nd August. The show starts at 7.15pm and lasts roughly an hour and a half, but I've no idea when I'll be on. Nor have I any idea who else will be reading and performing. Should be interesting and fun, though.

I've also promised I'll drop by the Scottish Poetry Library's courtyard readings at some point. It might be a case of breezing in on whatever day the fancy takes me but, if I decide to go sufficiently ahead of time, I'll mention it here on Tonguefire. Like all open(-mike) sessions, the courtyard readings can be tremendously hit and miss, but they throw up some gems every now and again.

It strikes me that Luke Kennard should perhaps add his voice to the courtyard readings, seeing as he'll be in Edinburgh with his theatre comany anyway. If he does, I hope the folks at Salt have advance warning enough to let us know on their Forward shortlist blog.

*Not counting appearances at Scottish Poetry Library courtyard readings, which are entirely open, if mikeless and therefore aren't real Fringe appearances.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Shore Poets Programme 2007-08

Here's the Shore Poets programme from September 2007 to June 2008 (guest poets in bold, Shore poets in italics and new poets in plain text). Don't forget our special Orkney event on Sunday 29th July.

30th Sept
Polly Clark, Ian McDonough and Gilly Garnett

28th Oct
Gillian Allnutt
, Christine De Luca and James W Wood

25th Nov
David Kinloch, Nancy Somerville and Julie Sheridan

27th Jan
Elizabeth Burns
, Jim C Wilson and Lauren Pope

24th Feb
Jacob Polley
, Diana Hendry and Debbie Cannon

30th Mar
Martin McIntyre

27th Apr
Colin Will, Andrew Philip and Rachael Boast

25th May
Kate Clanchy, Ken Cockburn and Stephanie Green

29th Jun
Richard Price
, Angela McSeveney and Simon Pomery

Weinberger on the Dead

America: the dead

People die, but there are no dead in America. The dead are those who are exhumed a year after burial, their bones washed and placed in catacombs or in a special niche in the house, their skulls painted, with jewels set in the eye sockets, their skulls set on spikes around the yard. The dead are those buried in suits of jade to live forever, with the ornaments, weapons, cooking utensils, and food they'll need in the other world. The dead are buried sitting on a chair, facing east. The dead have a rooster carved on their gravestones, to announce the soul's awakening. The dead are the ones for whom incense, candles, paper money, paper cars, paper houses with paper dishwashers and VCR's are burnt. The dead are the ones whose memorial tablets and portraits occupy a prominent place in the living room or in the temple. The dead have graves that are visited with regularity and kept from weeds, or inspire melancholy at their abandonment. The dead have graves where the family picnics once a year and misbehaves. The dead inhabit a place where the living, through chants or trance or solitude or drugs, can talk to them. The dead are those who take possession of the living. The dead are those who come back.

There are no dead in America because there are no corpses. Corpses are the invisible citizens of America, the secret no one tells, far rarer to observe by chance than copulation. We don't see them, we don't touch them, we don't dress them, we don't know what to do with them, we don't keep them in our bedrooms until they are interred, we don't watch their feet sticking out from the shroud as the flames consume them. So many people die on television in America because in our lives no one dies, they only vanish, and television is the great compensator for all we don't have or see.

There are no dead in America because there is no place. The dead are dependent on generations that do not move. The dead have graves where the family knows where the graves are. In America the ancestors are left behind in a nation constructed, like no other, on the pursuit of happiness, a dream of the future where the dead have no place. There is no happiness to pursue among the dead. The country was settled (in its historical era) as an escape from the dead. Except for those who came in the early years to practice their religion - to maintain the old ways - its emigrants have come seeking freedom from the tyranny of the dead and, like released slaves, they must wander and invent themselves. The generations move on, new people, forever "making a new start," holding the ethical ideal of being "born again" in this life.

In the dream of no history, small fears fester and infect. The standard American horror movie plot is the house, the school, the mall built over a forgotten cemetery, and the subsequent revenge of the desecrated: a story unimaginable anywhere else. Visiting the United States in 1944, the Chinese anthropologist Fei Tsao-t'ung reported that "people move about like the tide, unable to form permanent ties with places, to say nothing of other people . . . . Naturally they seldom see ghosts."

from Renga— ten linked prose pieces, published in Jacket 11 and Karmic Traces.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Another Dose of Salt

Salt has started a blog of coverage, readings etc connected to its Forward shortlisted authors. Can't help but be chuffed to see they've linked to my comments on the shortlist. I'll add the blog to the sidebar. Keep an eye on it: there seems to be something new every half hour or so! The latest is that Luke Kennard is bringing his theatre company to the Fringe, but here's hoping Salt will bring their Forwardeers up to Scotland for a reading or two. After all, Jen Hamilton-Emery is a Scot and the publicity of a wee reading tour could only help them with the problems that I've heard they have shifting books in Scotland.

Speaking of Luke Kennard, his MySpace is also one of the recent additions to the Tonguefire blogroll. As you can see from the two links on his name above, I've tracked down a few of his poems online. First impressions: an interesting flavour of slightly madcap, surreal seriousness. It's a voice I think I could easily warm to. I hope Salt will provide us with some podcast poems and one of their author videos on his author page soon.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Reading and Thinking

It's worth taking 10 minutes to listen to the interview with Fiona Sampson from Woman's Hour last week, helpfully drawn to my attention by my wife. She has quite a few interesting nuggets to share about poetry and editing Poetry Review. It's encouraging to hear that she reads all the roughly 60,000 unsolicited submissions that come into the magazine's office in a year, especially as not all poetry competitions are honest about who does the initial read-through*.

I was also interested by what she had to say about the necessity for women's writing not to let go of thinking. That had never hit me as a particular problem, but maybe that's because of the kind of poetry I'm drawn to, regardless of the poet's gender. I'm also struck that we should still have such a label as "women's writing" without ever talking about "men's writing" as a definable cultural entity. Perhaps that demonstrates just how far away we still are from genuine literary gender equality. Perhaps it also points to a greater reluctance among men to read "women's writing" than the other way round. A curious state of affairs, given how much men puzzle over the way women think.

*I did have an online reference for this but can't find it at the moment. I'll put it in when I can.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Courage, Brother, Do Not Stumble

One of the perks of my day job is the flexitime system, of which I take advantage by taking long lunches with friends in the summer recess. Yesterday, I had lunch with Rob A Mackenzie. Rob and I swapped the still Protean manuscripts of our putative first full collections, so publication was much on our minds and in our conversation. Despite our shared lamentations over the struggles of publishing poetry*, our discussions re-envigorated my determination to press ahead with my collection. Nicely timed too, as I'm off to an Arvon course on working towards a first collection in less than a fortnight.

I've not yet had time to do any more than glance at Rob's MS, but I'm struck by how many eye-catching titles are in his contents list. It gives a flavour of the slightly surreal wit and humour that pervades much of his best work, which is what you'll expect if you know his pamphlet or have heard him read. I'll blog properly on his collection once I've had the chance to scrutinise it.

*Okay, so we talked about other stuff as well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Shock of that Silence

I've been meaning to post a link to this marvellous, sensitive article all week. As a bereaved parent, I relate deeply to the experiences that Alice Jolly describes. I can't recommend her piece highly enough to anyone. If you've lost a child, you'll hear your own voice in her story. If you've never been through that horror and despair (and I pray you never will), you'll hear a voice much buried. And if you've ever lost anyone (who of us hasn't or won't?), you'll hear some salutory words about our society's problem with grief and the grieving.

Making Headway with the Forward ?

The shortleet for this year's Forward prizes is out and I haven't read a single book on it. No surprise there, as I don't ever seem to keep well abreast of these lists. I don't own any of the titles yet either, although John Burnside's Gift Songs should already be in the post from the PBS.

Without knowing the work, the only interesting comment I can make about the list this year is that it shows Salt Publishing continuing to make advances into the Mighty Handful's share of the publicity cake: one title in the best collection category* and two in the shortlist for the first collection prize**. No mere crumbs these, especially as the Guardian article linked to above leads with a few paragraphs about Luke Kennard, the Salt nominee for the best collection prize. The folk at Salt are understandably and justifiably delighted. It's due recognition of the vibrance, energy and success of their publishing enterprise.

Also interesting is the fact that the Guardian also has an article by Sarah Crown, editor of Guaridan Unlimited Books and one of the Forward judges, about her experience of reading nowt but poetry for three weeks. As far as I recall, such coverage for the Forward is without precident. It's the kind of treatment usually reserved for the Booker or, at a pinch the Whitbread-sorry!-Costa awards. Does this mean that the cultural media are waking up to the Forward? I hope so, though it's probably just a matter of Crown's being on the judging panel. Even if it is, I doubt it means that we'll see many more poetry collections reviewed in the mainstream broadsheet press in a hurry.

*Cape has two, while Picador, Carcanet and Bloodaxe have one apiece.

**The other two are from Arc and Faber.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Equally Surprised

The publication in which the translation I mentioned the other week appeared came through the door nearly a fortnight ago. You might be surprised to learn that it's “The Language of Equality”: The Mayor's Annual Equalities Report 2006/07, the mayor in question being one Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London. You wouldn't be the only one: when the fee arrived, along with a note saying that the report would be in the post, I was quite surprised! I don't think even Sarah Wardle, when she contacted me to ask me to translate her poem “Hotel Gordon” into Scots, was under the impression that it was for anything further than Hyphen-21's work in hospitals, despite the fact that the document says my translation (which is alongisde Sarah's poem on page 8) "was produced especially for this report". At least, she didn't mention it if she knew. Not that I'm bothered, like! On the contrary, I'm chuffed, not least because the report is peppered with poems by other London-based poets from all over the world, such as Yang Lian, for example. And if I sit reading the poems in this book at my day-job desk, it'll look like real work!

Refreshing of Parts

I've been trying out the exercise in Fiona Sampson's Guardian poetry workshop. For various reasons, I've stopped halfway through and will have to do the rest another day but, to my surprise, step 2 was such fun it re-enlivened my sheer, giggling delight in language. That Heinekening was particularly welcome after a drudgy morning of not really writing anything at all. We'll see whether it spills out into anything else I attempt this afternoon.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Blues that Stays News

I can't help but think that last night's Shore Poets event could have shown some of Thursday night's slammers a thing or two about how imaginative and contentful something that might be described as a performance poem can be. Nowhere was that more the case than in the closing set, from the night's main reader, WN Herbert.

Bill Herbert would be a hard man to beat in a slam. He has always been a poet of many guises, a writer with a flair and versatility few can match. Ballads, sonnets or blues; rhymed or unrhymed poetry; metred or free verse; lyric or narrative; surreal or realist; tender, witty, erudite or scatalogical--this man can do it all with equal aplomb and intelligence. And he does it in Scots, English and all the fluid gradations between the two sibling languages.

Bill's set last night leant heavily towards the more performancy end of his writing, especially with his early poem "Talking Water Blues" and the title poem from his most recent collection, "Bad Shaman Blues". Both push the blues into unexpected places. Don't think of Auden's use of the form. Or, if you do, think of it crossed with MacDiarmid and dropping acid like chocolate buttons. "Cognitive freefall" is how I once heard him describe his writing technique. That's maybe not a bad description of the imaginative riot at the heart of the work, but it belies the degree of effortless craft in the poems.

June's Shore poet was Angela McSeveney. Angela is a much less showy writer than Bill Herbert, but her performance was no less assured or sparky than his. She delivered the night's most memorable piece--a vivid, hugely entertaining poem about slaughtering beetroot, which she dedicated to Hamish Whyte who had just celebrated a significant birthday. Her set was packed with gems of her clear, honed, crystalline writing.

The opener this month was Dorothy Baird, whose new collection is just coming out with Two Ravens Press. A good, assured set. I particularly liked "The Cry of the Night Child" and the poem of hers built on the conceit that dawn is the only word for the dawn in English. She spoilt the conceit slightly by saying "dawn is the only word for the sunrise in English", but the poem was good nonetheless.

The music was from three lassies from the Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin, a traditional music project. Ailsa, Becky and Mairi (I didn't get their surnames) must be in their early 20s at most but are already accomplished traditional singers and treated us to three excellent sets of Scots, English and Irish songs.

Usually, the Shore Poets season finishes in June. However, this year, we have a special event in July for our Orkney exchange. The shame is that, although I'm going to Orkney on the exchange in October, I won't make it to next month's reading because I'll be heading off to this Arvon course. Normal Shore Poets service resumes in September, when Polly Clark will be the headliner.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Big Word, Little Oomph

Went to the Big Word Slam for the first time in my life last night. Does it surprise you that I was a slam virgin? Well, in the general run of things, Thursdays are not convenient evenings for me. And although I love poetry readings, I've never been convinced by performance poetry as a genre*. Nonetheless, I thought I'd give it a shot, in part because Jennifer Williams was competing. (If I'd have tagged her as anything, it would have been more as a slightly experimental poet than a performance poet, but blurring the distinctions ain't a bad thing.)

In one important sense, I remain a slam virgin, since I went as an audience member not a slammer. Don't think I'm likely to be hurrying back, though: I was largely underwhelmed by the quality of writing on display. I don't want to hear another -ation rhyme for years. Or possibly ever. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can rhyme anything ending in -ation and the choice is wide, if largely abstract, so a string of such rhymes is little demonstration of skill, craft and creativity.

Last night illustrated what I see as a big problem with slams: third-rate writing can be hidden too easily behind an energetic, audience-pleasing performance whereas good writing that comes with a quieter performance can suffer, no matter how assured the delivery. It's written into the rules at Big Word, where the judges are supposed to score on each of three aspects: the quality of the writing, the performance and the audience reaction. Democracy is a great way to run a country, but I'm not sure how good a way it is to run a poetry event. Though the fact that the judges have hardly any breathing space to formulate their judgments and scores on one heat before the next begins might mitigate even more against a just outcome.**

Of course, it's not that a really good writer can't share a brain and body with an energetic performer, just that there was little evidence of it in what I saw yesterday***. A loud and lively performance is fine and dandy, but there has to be electricty in the language as well. Otherwise why call it poetry? Nor is it that the quieter writing doesn't stand a chance, but the odds are stacked against it when the quality of the writing is only one criterion in three.

I mentioned JL Williams; I've been impressed by her work and readings in the past and, even if last night's poem wasn't her best by a long stretch, she deserved to go through to the semi-final more than some of the slammers who did. Personally, I think she suffered from not being noisy enough, but that's not her style. Her delivery has a fine measured, mesmeric quietness. That stood out, but it obviously didn't please enough.

However, nick-e melville, whose poem for the heats was constructed of phrases taken from television adverts, was way out in front. It wasn't only the writing technique that distinguished him, but the humour and intelligence of the composition. Oh, there was plenty comic writing on offer throughout the heats, as you might anticipate, but there was nothing else that managed to be simultaneously so entertaining, clever, intelligent and stimulating. He was a good reader too, and I kind of regret not sticking around to hear what else he had to read. On last night's showing and the work you'll find if you follow the links in his name above, I wouldn't peg him as a performance poet at all. I'd say he's more of a concrete, visual or experimental poet so, if I spot him on a future bill, maybe I will go back.

*Individual writers identified as performance poets are another matter.
**Maybe that's the origin of the slam saying "the best poet never wins", which was even the subject of one of the pieces.
***I left early, partly due to tiredness (long day at the day job), but that probably means I missed the best work.

Nationalism, Nasties and Numismatics

I want to respond in more detail to a couple of the comments on my post about the first part of Yang-May Ooi's interview with Rob Mackenzie (the second part of which is now available). Ms Baroque (aka Katy Evans-Bush) commented:

"the idea of nationalist poetry sounds disturbingly stalinist these days."

Three things bother me about that statement. The first is the slide from a national poetry to a nationalist poetry. The second is, in essence, what bothered me about the phrase "Scottish poetry" in the original interview, namely: what does it mean? The third is the equation of nationalism with extremism and repression.

Scotland is a nation, not just a region--just not a nation state. As such, it has a national poetry. Of course, it would be foolish to pretend that this poetry is entirely sepearate from British poetry and English (sic) literature as a whole, but there are distinctive characteristics to Scottish poetry, not only linguistically but thematically. Part of the latter is a concern about Scottish identity. I can't think of an equivalent concern in English poetry*, though I could be wrong about that.

It seems to me that Yang-May was asking Rob about where he would place his work in relation to the notion of a national poetry, whether Scottish or British**. It leaves me asking why Ms Baroque felt the need to invoke nationalism and equate it with Stalinism (answers on an e-card, please, Ms B!).

Let's interrogate possible meanings of the concept nationalist poetry. What could it be? The most obvious answer is a poetry that supports nationalism. But then we have to ask whether we're talking political nationalism, cultural nationalism or both.

If we're talking political nationalism, what hue? There are right and left-wing expressions of nationalism. Unfortunately, it seems the right-wing nationalism is often aggressive, voluble and therefore taken to be with the whole story. One thinks immediately of the BNP, the Balkans and various of the struggles in the Middle East. One might also think of an old-school Tory my-country-right-or-wrong, for-King-and-country jingoism.

But they're not the whole story. Whether we're talking political or cultural nationalism, or a nationalism of the left or the right, one of the crucial points is whether it's a nationalism of grudge, hatred and exclusion or friendship, celebration and optimism. Many Scots are comfortable with being part of a mongrel nation, to use a phrase that William McIlvanney famously employed positively of Scotland in 1992.

This is not to deny the sectarianism rife in the central belt of Scotland, that there is racism in Scotland or that there are anti-English elements in the Scottish nationalist movement. It's a sad fact of human nature that such prejudices exist in any population (and must be resisted) regardless of the presence or absence of a nationalist movement. For all they are problems in Scotland, we have not only some fine counter-examples but a counter-tradition.

This brings me back to poetry, thankfully! To me, the poem that best sums up why (Scottish) nationalism is not a great Stalinist evil is "The Coin" from Edwin Morgan's sequence Sonnets from Scotland, written after the failed 1979 referendum. I couldn't find a satisfactory link, so here it is:

We brushed the dirt off, held it to the light.
The obverse showed us Scotland, and the head
of a red deer; the antler-glint had fled
but the fine cut could still be felt. All right:
we turned it over, read easily One Pound,
but then the shock of Latin, like a gloss,
Respublica Scotorum, sent across
such ages as we guessed but never found
at the worn edge where once the date had been
and where as many fingers had gripped hard
as hopes their silent race had lost or gained.
The marshy scurf crept up to our machine,
sucked at our boots. Yet nothing seemed ill-starred.
And least of all the realm the coin contained.

Of course, I've already invoked Morgan as a good Scottish internationalist. It's the all-embracing optimism of that closure ("nothing seemed ill-starred") that strikes and excites me every time I read it. That's the nation of "A Man's A Man for A' That", Joseph Knight or the grassroots campaign to prevent Sakchai Makao's deportation. That's a nation that can be nationalist without being jingoistic and a nation that its inhabitants can take pride in without, I hope, becoming proud.

*Of course, that concern probably sometimes comes out in the kind of "matter of Scotland" poem that has clear relatives in English writing. However, although there's overlap I don't think a poem about Scottish/English idenity the same as a matter of Scotland/England poem .

**National is one of those odd words in the UK that doesn't quite know what it refers to. In Scotland, it tends to refer to Scotland; in England, it usually tries to refer to the whole of the UK but often basically refers to England, as in the phrase "the national news" or "the national press", the news values of which which are in reality quite Anglocentric, if not metrocentric.

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