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.

The Price of Letters

Three things came my way this week that set me to thinking how the odd fee structures are in the poetry world: the £40 cheque accompanying my contributor copy of Lallans 70, the £100 fee for a poetry translation I did back in March and a £150 commission for a short poem. So, I get £40 for roughly 150 lines in Lallans, £100 for translating 12 lines of English into Scots and £150 for writing a 14 to 20-line poem. Work that one out. (Not that I'm sniffing at any of it, of course!)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Lallans 70

My latest publication is four poems in issue 70 of Lallans magazine, "the journal o Scots airts an letters", published by the Scots Language Society. To be exact, it's three original poems--"Coronach", "A Muckle Music" and "Waukrife"--plus "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.", which is a translation of Rilke's "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes." As you will have guessed, all four are in Scots, as is everything else in Lallans, down to the bibliographical and other details on the inside cover. This is the first time any of my work has appeared in Lallans.

Lallans 70 is a handsome-looking, well-produced, substantial journal. There are a feature on the Scots language in modern drama--consisting of a few critical essays and one piece of drama--poems from four other authors besides me, a couple of stories and a host of book reviews. I suspect I might have some disagreements with the journal's house orthography, but it should be an interesting read nonetheless.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Linlithgow Book Festival 2007

As veteran readers of this blog will know, contrary to The Sunday Herald's belief, Linlithgow already has a book festival. Last year's inaugural festival was a one-day affair, but the two-year-old LBF has done with doukin its taes in the watter and is splashing into a whole weekend of bookish blether from Friday 2 November to Sunday 4 November 2007.

The start times of the events for this year's LBF are still to be confirmed, but the basic line-up is as follows:

Friday 2 Nov evening:

Saturday 3 Nov afternoon:

Saturday 3 Nov evening:

Sunday 4 Nov morning:

Sunday 4 Nov afternoon:

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Singing from a Strange Hymn Sheet

Just finished reading Alistair Findlay's The Love Songs of John Knox, a sophisticated but hugely entertaining collection. It's not often a book of poems has me chuckling aloud to myself almost every page. Even rarer is the collection I pass round colleagues at my day job to watch them chuckle and giggle aloud.

Findlay takes us for a surreal and manic spin through the Scottish Reformation and 21st century Scotland. In numerous poems, Knox lands in various 21st century settings--appearing on Newsnight (not, you note, Newsnicht) and This is Your Life, watching Celtic play Porto or visiting the seamier side of Livingston. He also writes to various figures (including Calvin, Elizabeth I of England and Lenin) and addresses the poet. Some poems cover the Reformation ground alone, albeit usually with the same revved-up style. And there are plenty other voices besides Knox's: "the poet", Knox's two wives and his daughter, Lenin's (yes, he writes back), Mary Queen of Scots' ladies in waiting, even a 16th century police report as well as the various voices of parodies and pastiches.

For the most part, the writing is a very conversational style of free verse, but a few poems (the Eliot and Milton parodies in particular) opt for a more formal tone. The language throughout veers between 16th century Scots, 21st century Scots and standard English not only across poems but within individual pieces, stanzas and even lines. Some phrases and lines come directly from Knox or his contemporaries. Indeed, some of the pieces consist solely of such lines, which feels a bit like channel surfing on a short-wave radio into the past. One poem, "God and Revolution--Knox and Lenin's Lines to the Faithful" juxtaposes phrases from the two gentlmen named.

It all makes for a wonderfully distruptive linguistic texture. Easily readable for most Scots, I reckon, as Findlay is careful with his archaisms. And not unreflective of how many of us speak, aside from the 16th century rhetoric. If it's a speech-based poetic, it's a rich and complex one, capable of subtleties and textures a more resolutely street-based approach might miss.

This book could easily reach out to people who don't usually read poetry. Sure, they'd miss the smattering of literary jokes, but there's much else besides to admire and enjoy. It's also pretty essential reading, given how central to the nature of Scotland are the events, obsessions and figures it deals with.

Knox often gets the blame for just about everything that's identified as being wrong with the Scottish psyche, particularly the male version. Yes, Scotland has changed immeasurably since Knox (where hasn't?), but, every now and then, the disturbing sense arises that Knox's rhetoric is not as alien to today's Scottish society as it ought to be. Findlay simply lets that sense arise without making too much of it, which is part of the book's strength.

Nonetheless, don't think for a minute that Findlay's Knox is the soor ploom beloved of much Scottish social comment. Findlay is a Marxist, which gives him obvious respect for Knox the revolutionary. That's crucial to the success of his endeavour, because his Knox emerges as a far more complex character than the dour Calvinist we're usually subjected to. Neither traditional secular Knox-bashing, hardline Calvinist Knox-worship nor mainstream Protestant Knox-ambivalence could have yeilded the gloriously anarchic reading of Scottish history and society that this collection offers.

If the sequence has a significant weakness, it's that Findlay slips into summarising Reformation history too much. When he combines this with wit, comedy and surrealism--as he very often does--it's part of the pleasure. But, in the odd poem where those are lacking, the considerable virr and smeddum that characterise the sequence dissipate and we're left with rather thin brose. Findlay should have trusted his readers more and left out those pieces. More to the point, his editors should have cut them.

The question some might ask is whether this book will translate to a non-Scottish audience. It probably won't, which is a shame in that it could be a good one for introducing people to certain aspects of Scottish society and culture. It's not just a matter of language, because the work assumes a fair amount of background knowledge, as does all good, rooted poetry. But, on the other hand, we need to talk to and about ourselves as much as any nation. It's a crucial part of understanding ourselves, understanding where we've come from and where we're headed. Whether or not anybody else understands what we're saying, seldom has it been this much fun.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Is the Sleeping Electorate Waking?

The Sunday Herald has launched a campaign for a new Scottish Constitutional Convention. Is it just me, or has the result of the Scottish election breathed new life into Scottish politics, not only in itself but in how it relates to British politics?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

"What is Scottish Poetry?" Revisited

My post on the back of part 1 of Yang-May Ooi's interview with Rob Mackenzie is generating the most discussion yet on Tonguefire (still piddling by other blogs' standards, I know). Katy Evans-Bush has reminded me that she addressed the same issues with Rob in an earlier interview for the e-zine Umbrella. Here's the relevant bit from the interview, the rest of which is well worth a read:

Do you see yourself as a “Scottish poet”, and if so, how would you define that tradition?

That’s a hard one. The answer is “Yes” but I am also just a poet.

There is no single Scottish tradition. I suppose you could say that some Scottish poets stay at home and write exclusively from a Scottish landscape, and focus on everyday details to explore universal themes. Other Scottish poets, while concerned with Scottish identity, engage in a dialogue with other cultures, traditions and languages. Hugh MacDiarmid wrote exclusively in Scots, and indeed completely renewed the language, but he was concerned with a worldwide political arena. Edwin Morgan wrote a great sequence of sonnets exploring the city of Glasgow, but translated poems from all over Europe and beyond. Contemporary poets such as Don Paterson, Robin Robertson and Richard Price, who often focus on the Scottish landscape and psyche, have also published translations of Antonio Machado, Tomas Transtromer and Apollinaire. And Paterson has just released versions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.

I lived in Italy for a while and identify with the cross-cultural, international engagement that has typified much Scottish writing. I’m interested in questions of identity and nationality, but not in a narrow nationalistic sense. I’ve translated poems from Italian by the likes of Montale, Ungaretti, Quasimodo, Saba, and a contemporary poet from Bologna, Davide Rondoni. I guess these activities are typical of what being a “Scottish poet” is about.

You sound as if you find it very energising for your own writing that Scotland has such an exciting crop of contemporary poets. What qualities would you say contribute to that?
Yes, it’s very energising. I really like a lot of the contemporary grouping of big-name Scottish poets – Edwin Morgan, Carol Ann Duffy, John Burnside, Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, etc. – the list could go on for some time. There’s also a burgeoning scene of lesser-known poets, often known only through chapbooks from small presses. Helena Nelson’s HappenStance Press, Duncan Glen’s Akros, James Robertson’s Kettillonia, Hamish Whyte’s Mariscat and several other small publishing houses are producing stuff of real quality.

My favourite is probably Edwin Morgan. His poetry is so varied, and each poem achieves just the right tone and voice. There’s no single form you could associate with him. He can do anything from the wildest experimentation to the most perfectly crafted Italian sonnet. He wrote some of the finest blank verse of the last century. I get the impression that, outside Scotland, he is criminally underrated. I also very much enjoy John Burnside – his lyricism, his questioning, philosophical mind, and the imagination that goes into his imagery, are astonishing.

What I like about most of these poets, and what informs my own work, is that they don’t find an “authorial voice” and stick to it with every poem. Instead, they give each poem its distinctive music and structure. I know that a Collected Poems unified around a single “voice” are what some poets seem to dream of for themselves these days. I know that creative writing classes appear to urge poets to “find their voice”. I know voice is trendy and variety isn’t. It makes marketing easier as there is a clearly defined product to sell. It focuses attention on the poet – his/her voice becomes a symbol of their personality and authenticity. But the poems can suffer. Style is another matter. Poems can be written in a multiplicity of voices and yet still have an identifiable style. Just as a great musician’s style can be heard whether playing a lyrical lament or a celebratory reel, so a mature poet’s style is evident even if the voice varies from poem to poem. Too many poets play the same sluggish, mid-tempo march all the time. I’m all for difference.

Also, on the back of looking Googling for "Young, Chinese and Scottish" by Kevin Macneil in answer to comments by Yang-May, I came across an online essay "Infinite Diversity in New Scottish Writing", by Suhayl Saadi. I've not read it, but it looks like it could well be an interesting contribution to the debate.

The Independents Strike Back

Interesting piece in today's Sunday Herald about independent bookshops in Scotland. It seems Hugh Andrew of Birlinn is branching out into bookstores. This has to be a welcome development for writers and readers in Scotland, given the dominance of identikit chain book stores, but the big challenge is how independents will not just survive but thrive against the competition of sites like Amazon.

There are a few odd comments in the article, such as:

The small Elgin store, scheduled to open in the autumn, is considered the last independent Scottish bookshop with the exception of John Smith, which now runs university bookshops.

The "last independent Scottish bookshop"?! Do they mean "independent chain"? Is it a chain? There are certainly other individual independent bookshops, such as Word Power in Edinburgh or Linlithgow Bookshop in, funnily enough, Linlithgow.

And Alasdair Gray is quoted as saying:

the country has "hardly a publisher or bookshop to call its own".

But there's a reasonable small press scene here. Aside from Birlinn, Canongate and Luath, there's a good clutch of pamphlet publishers. Still, one can hardly disagree that it could be a lot healthier and we could have more publishers of bigger size and impact.

Fascinating to see the criticisms of the previous Executive's approach to publishing and the book trade, though it seems misplaced to criticise the Executive for the growth of big out-of-town bookshops when planning is a local authority responsibility. It will be even more interesting to see how the SNP Executive approaches the matter.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Poetcasting HappenStance

It seems Matt Merritt will be recorded for Poetcasting at some point in the autumn. Alex Pryce, the brain behind the project, is planning a trip to Scotland in the summer and I'm hoping to be recorded. Perhaps HappenStance is poised for (virtual) world domination ...

Friday, June 08, 2007

Island <> Shore

The next reading I have in the diary at the moment isn't until October, but it's one I'm particularly looking forward to. Pam Beasant, the first George Mackay Brown writing fellow, contacted Shore Poets convener, Christine De Luca early this year enquiring whether we would be interested in an exchange with some Orkney poets. We readily agreed, and so Pam, Yvonne Gray and Alistair Peebles will join us for a special event on Sunday 29 July, while a clutch of the Shore poets--Christine, Ian McDonough, Diana Hendry and I--will head Orkneyward for a weekend of events 12 and 13 October. This will be my first reading on any of Scotland's islands, and I'm delighted to be going, not least because I've never been to the northern isles and have itched to go to Orkney for ages. I hereby promise to blog about the trip. Who knows, I might even treat you to a photo or two.

Scottish Six

So the notion of a "Scottish Six" is back on the agenda, though probably not very far up it. I don't know how far this is an intitiative of Pete Wishart's or of the wider SNP but, if a Scottish Six O'clock News comes into being, I suspect it won't happen in a great hurry.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What is Scottish Poetry?

Rob Mackenzie has gone and got himself interviewed by Yang-May Ooi of FusionView. Part 1 of the piece is here. I was intrigued by the two following questions and answers:

Is being Scottish a strong part of your identity? What does being Scottish mean to you?

I’m not particularly nationalistic, until someone criticises Scotland. I am Scottish and Im sure thats shaped me in all kinds of indefinable ways. Its not something Ive explored all that much. Maybe I should. That might well be a future project.

Is your poetry Scottish poetry? (as opposed to English poetry/ Welsh poetry or just plain old “poetry”)

I feel its just plain old poetry. I dont write in Scots or Gaelic and while I've written a few poems about Scottish identity, its not a theme Ive majored on. I know some of my poet-colleagues here are far more interested in doing this than I am and are influenced mainly by other Scottish poets. I like several Scottish poets John Burnside, Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig, Don Paterson, Roddy Lumsden they are excellent writers. But my influences come from all over Rilke (Germany), Roy Fisher (England), Simic (USA), Miroslav Holub (Czech Republic), and many others.

One wonders, first of all, what exactly the second question means. It's a fair question in it's own way, but how does one define "Scottish poetry" aside from the obvious and banal poetry written in Scotland and/or by Scots? More to the point, what does Yang-May Ooi have in mind when she asks the question and what concept does it evoke in Rob's mind as he answers it?

However, what caught my eye most was the discussion of influence. Whether or not this his intention, there is an implication in the way Rob phrases his reply to the second of those questions that his international set of influences makes him a less Scottish poet than those who "are influenced mainly by other Scottish poets". It's an implication I'd contest. There is and long has been an internationalist bent to Scottish thought and culture. By that account, those whose influences are more narrowly Scottish could actually be regarded as less Scottish than Rob with his literary internationalism.

I have to say, I'd love him to name names: not only the names of the poets whose influences are "mainly Scottish" but of the poets who influence them. It would be fascinating to see how many of those Scottish influences are good Scots internationalists. After all, to pick two of the prominent Scottish poets Rob mentions, Edwin Morgan is certainly international in outlook--witness his volume of Collected Translations, for example--and John Burnside not only looks considerably to American writers and musicians but is interested in Scandinavia.

Perhaps Rob might comment ... Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to reading the second half of the interview.

Feeling Hungry? You Soon Will Be ...

I'm sorry, but I just had to post this link. (Thanks to Yang-May Ooi of FusionView for posting it originally.)

What's New on Tonguefire