Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Did I mention it has my name on it" revisited

The jacket for The Ambulance Box has been revised, so I've replaced the photo in the post below with the new version. Also, the PDF sample is now available.

Children's Christmas Book Tree

Just seen this in an e-mail newsletter from Edinburgh International Book Festival. Looks like a great idea but, unfortunately, it finishes today!

Blackwell's Bookshop on South Bridge, Edinburgh, are working with City of Edinburgh Council, Edinburgh Women's Aid and Edinburgh Young Carers to help make Christmas a little better for disadvantaged local children. The Children's Christmas Book Tree scheme means that children who will be living in difficult circumstances at Christmas, who have caring responsibilities beyond their years or those who won't be at home for Christmas and will have few personal possessions, will each receive a book to treasure.

The children have each put their Christmas wishes for a book on a gift tag which is then hung on a Christmas tree in the store. All you need to do is choose a book which you think the child will really appreciate, from dinosaurs to fairies, Jacqueline Wilson to James and the Giant Peach. Staff in the children's department will be more than happy to help with selections. You then pay for the chosen book and leave it with staff in store who will ensure that it gets wrapped, before being distributed to the right child for Christmas day.

If you are keen to donate a book, there's not much time left: the scheme finishes on 21 December. Those of you who can't make it to the store can ring Blackwell's on 0131 622 8222, ask to speak to the children's department, and donate a book over the phone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Did I mention it has my name on it?

Things are moving on apace with The Ambulance Box, folks. No sooner had I dispatched my second proofs, than third proofs and a first cover design appeared in my inbox. (Okay, I confess to a slight exaggeration there. There was a time lag of a few days.)

The cover looks as fabulous as all those other Salt jackets I've drooled over in the past few years but it has my name on it!

This afternoon, the web page for the book went live. It has my face on it, courtsey of the marvellous marc marnie. You can also read descriptions of the collection there, along with a brief biographical note and enblurbments. There's a PDF sample and you can read a poem from the book and see the table of contents. I'm delighted with how it's all coming together. Publication date is 1 March 2009, as you know, so don't be deceived by the big BUY NOW! button. We go to press in the new year. Look out for further updates and details of readings here.

Did I mention I was excited?

By Pods We Live

Ryan Van Winkle, the Scottish Poetry Library's reader in residence, has just produced the first SPL podcast. Check it out here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Messiaen's Birthday

I can't let today pass without noting that it would have been the 100th birthday of that great 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen, a favourite of mine. I've blogged before about what makes him so great for me, and my enthusiasm only deepens the more I hear his music.

Radio 3 is celebrating the centenary in suitable style: Messiaen was Composer of the Week last week (download the podcast here while you can) and his Quartet for the End of Time was the subject of Discovering Music on Sunday, but there is much more besides. And this after a summer and autumn already packed with Messiaen pieces! I'd be in heaven if I had the time and space to listen to them all.

Chestnuts

Katy Evans-Bush's virtual book tour has got off to a glowing winter start with a short but delightful interview at the North Meadow Media blog. I just had to write down the following and share it with you:

Word play opens up the language itself, like a pile of roasted chestnuts, for our delectation.

Isn't that lovely? So evocative. I'll never be able to pun again without thinking of that wonderful, warm, sweet aroma.

You can find the rest of the dates for Katy's tour here on Salt's new Cyclone sub-site. And don't forget that those of us far from the metropolitan mayhem of the south have an opportunity to catch her in person at the Great Grog in June 2009 reading from her collection Me and the Dead.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Essay and Much More

It's a good season for poetry on Radio 3. The Essay last week was deeply under the influence: five contemporary poets each on a poet who influenced them. I'd recommend in particular Michael Symmons Roberts on David Jones; WN Herbert on Edwin Morgan (don't ask me what the picture of Eilean Donan castle is about!); and Menna Elfyn on T Gwynn Jones. But hurry up and listen before they fall off the end of the iPlayer, which starts happening tomorrow.


But that's just the canape in comparison to the cornucopia of programmes on and/or involving work by Milton up till the end of the year. His shorter poems are being dropped into Breakfast and Afternoon on 3. They started in earnest with the Sunday Feature tonight, to which I'm listening as I write this, and continue with the Essay this week.

A Conversation about Dreams

That ever-stylish blogger and Salt poet Katy Evans-Bush embarks tomorrow on a virtual book tour to promote her collection Me and the Dead. The tour, entitled "A Conversation About Dreams" will include feature interviews, pictures, audio, poems, jokes and a few serious moments -- everything you'd expect from an in-person book tour expect flesh-pressing signing sessions. The tour kicks off tomorrow at North Meadow blog. It should be well worth following Ms B's virtual progress, which I'm sure will also find its comment on Baroque in Hackney.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Salting the Ground

For any Facebook user interested in contemporary literary publishing -- especially writers who hope to be published -- Chris Hamilton-Emery's notes should be essential reading. They are a blog in the strictest sense, a log of daily ups and downs that gives a fascinating insight into the struggle of juggling family life and the heavy demands of running one of the most vibrant literary presses in the UK. Chris's openness about those demands and the precarious economics of the enterprise is impressive. Take this, from yesterday's note:

I thought I'd write a note on sales here, too. Each Salt title represents about £2,000 investment that's cost of sales and a share of the overhead. It means that every title has to do a lot of work to break even. Discounts vary from 20% to 60% dependent on the route to market (or sales channel) and the sales of individual volumes can vary hugely. Average first year sales are 200 copies. Some sell 1,000 copies, many sell around 150. Too many sell less than 50 copies. A few sell less than 5 copies. We need to sell around 310 copies to break even in the UK, 800 in Australia and 600 in the USA. That's before we make any money to pay for the next lot of books and to continue the publishing programme, never mind any capital we need for IT or new ventures. Making those sales is the toughest thing Jen and I have ever done.

Hard truth, isn't it? But it's best that we writers not be under any illusions about how hard everyone -- especially us -- has to work to make our books a success. And maybe it makes us think hard about what we define as success.

More impressive still is the quality and variety of the Salt poetry and fiction lists. Yes, yes, I would say that, but you don't have to take my word for it: check out the many links here to reviews of Salt titles in the broadsheets and elsewhere or the prizes for which Salt authors have been shortlisted and have won. Check out too what David Morley, for example, has to say here about Jane Holland's new collection Camper Van Blues and Isobel Dixon’s A Fold in the Map. An embarrassment of riches, I'm sure you'll agree, and a truly international one at that.

Most importantly of all, get yourself down to the Salt online shop (here for customers in the USA) and avail yourself of that fantastic pre-Christmas offer: 33% off all books. You all know how essential Salt is in a cold and icy winter like this one.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dated and Prized

The Ambulance Box grows ever closer to becoming a reality. Chris at Salt and I have just settled on 1 March 2009 as the publication date. If that seems far away to you, as it does to some friends I talk to, it seems tantalisingly close to me!

Speaking of Salt, Will Stone's collection Glaciation won the Glen Dimplex New Writers poetry award 2008 the other week, while Rachel Blau Duplessis has been longlisted for the first Warwick Prize for Writing. The Warwick list is nothing if not varied. Congratulations to Chris, Jen, Will and Rachel!

Oh, and speaking of prizes, the shortlists for the Costa are out. No Salt titles on there, but it's a strong poetry list:

  • For All We Know by Ciaran Carson (more)
  • The Broken Word by Adam Foulds (more)
  • Sunday at the Skin Launderette by Kathryn Simmonds (more)
  • Salvation Jane by Greta Stoddart (more)

Ciaran Carson's is the only one I've read. Adam Foulds' book I've heard a lot about. Kathryn Simmonds won the Forward first collection prize this year, of course. And I know nothing about Great Stoddart's book (I couldn't even find it on the Anvil site when I looked the other day). I have to agree, of course, with Todd Swift about the glaring omissions ...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bádhraic Ó Bamaigh go brágh!

You'll be humming it for weeks, especially around 20th January 2009.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Small is Beautiful!

That's got to have been the best wee festival in the world we had the weekend before last. What a cracker LBF 08 was! Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish Government education secretary and a Lithgae resident, launched the festival and christened our new participants autograph book. She stayed around for Christopher Brookmyre's sell-out event. There was such a fantastic buzz about the hall as the crowd piled in. Brookmyre, whom I'd never heard before, was an entertaining speaker and reader. There was a fantastic buzz as the crowd piled out too. We couldn't have got off to a better start.

The poetry workshop I ran occupied me for the first chunk of the Saturday. It went swimmingly, if I do say so myself. I had four participants, a comfortable number for discussion and reading round. They were a good group--gelled well, very ready to talk about the poems I used as models--and I was impressed with what they produced in the 20 or so minutes they had to write at the end. We chatted on afterwards for a good half hour, so I missed Timothy Neat on Hamish Henderson and the first Saturday event I sat in on was James Kelman's reading. First time I'd seen him too. I'd heard say he wasn't such a great speaker, but I was impressed. He read from Kieron Smith, Boy; I was struck how well he'd seemed to capture not only the language of the boy but the grammar of his thought processes and how he turned them to poetry without losing any authenticity. He was forceful and articulate too in what he said about Scotland, Scottish culture, Scots language and cultural amnesia.

After Kelman, I took a break, getting back to the festival in time to help out for Alex Gray's event. I didn't hear her, as I manned the front desk partly to keep an eye on any early arrivals for the open mike, but her reading seemed to go down well with the audience (which, incidentally, included Rob A Mackenzie).

The open mike was a triumph. We had a good mix of poetry and prose; a good mix of styles. Usually, such events are hit and miss, sometimes terribly hit and miss. This one was hit after hit: good performances all round and lots of strong writing. Rob read, as did Mandy Maxwell (who came all the way up from Newcastle). Mandy's "Michaelangelo Takes a Sickie" was a highlight of the evening. We also had Fiona Lindsay and Gavin Inglis from Edinburgh and a good local, West Lothian contingent: Grace Cleary, Ellie Stewart, Emma Mooney and a man whose name I've forgotten (sorry!). A handful of us ended up in Platform 3 pub for a bit afterwards-- right next to the band!--and I got home about midnight, I think.

Clear skies and sun helped bring the families out for the children's events on the Sunday. Catherine Rayner showed us some gorgeous original drawings and paintings for her books and shared with us the prototype of a new one, about a moose who couldn't fit in the book. Lynne McGeachie enthralled the audience with The Tail o Peter Kinnen, her fine Scots translation of The Tail of Peter Rabbit, drawing out the children's knowledge of Scots and building it subtly.

The festival ended with Alistair Findlay. Readers of this blog will know how highly I think of his The Love Songs of John Knox in particular, so it was a pleasure to introduce him to the shall we say select audience. It's a pity he didn't have a bigger crowd, because he's a superb reader and brought the festival to a close with virr, wit, intelligence and great fun. Still, he had a book-buying audience, which is always a bonus for the writer.

A huge thank you to everyone who participated in making it such a great weekend. See you in 2009!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes, They Did! (Could We?)

A truly remarkable day in the USA. A truly remarkable day for politics in the developed world full stop, surely. I found myself quite moved first thing this morning hearing President elect Obama's victory speech. And I was moved again this evening watching the scenes of celebration.

President elect Obama. Wow. Let's say that again: "President elect Obama". Even last year, who'd have thought we'd be witnessing the election of the first African American President of the United States? (Who'd even have dared to be certain Bush's successor would be a Democrat?) The adjective historic is overused but it most certainly fits here.

How long, I wonder, until the UK has its first black or Asian Prime Minister? We don't use phrases such as "British Asian" or "British Afro-Caribbean", do we really? Would the political classes contemplate a non-white leader for one of our major political parties at the moment? Would the electorate be willing to vote into power a party led by a non-white man or woman? That's not even going anywhere near the vexed questions of turnout and participation. There's no immediate prospect of finding out but, as the American election proved, politics can be full of surprises.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The News Agenda

Never mind Brand and Ross, this is the real entertainment news (and this is the really interesting bit).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A busy weekend ahead with this year's Linlithgow Book Festival kicking off on Friday. I'm particularly looking forward to the workshop I'm running and to Alistair Findlay's reading on Sunday. Alistair is one of Scotland's sharpest voices and a hugely entertaining reader. He's an unusually political writer for this era and can be a bitingly funny commentator on our culture and society. Not to be missed, I'd say.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Green and Gold

It's really been a week for new audiences. Wednesday morning was filled with meetings about a Scots language poetry project in Bo'ness Academy. They lasted longer than I anticipated and ended up running into the afternoon but some extremely useful and exciting stuff came out of them. The project gets going in earnest on Monday; I might say something about it over at The Skraich, time permitting.

In the evening, I scurried off to Edinburgh for the Golden Hour at the Forest. First time I'd ever been at it so I didn't quite know what to expect but I liked what I found. It was packed, for one thing. I haven't seen that many people, let alone that many people under 40, at a live literature and music event for some time. I've obviously been in the wrong place!

Anyway, I was first on, which was good because I was knackered, what with this week's travelling, meeting and being up late preparing for a busy family weekend ahead. But you can always count on the adrenalin to waken you up a bit. And the peppermint tea helped (I know, I live dangerously). Here's what I read:

1) The Invention of Zero
2) Coronach
3) Lullaby
4) 45 Minutes
5) Man With a Dove on His Head
6) The White Dot
7) The Melody At Night, With You
8) In Praise of Dust

It's the aftermath of a pile-up involving Monday's two sets but it worked well and the Golden Hour crowd liked it. I sold one pamphlet, which is respectable, especially as prospective purchasers would have had trouble locating me merging into the books in the corner (the only place near the stage I could find to perch when I arrived). And an audience member sent me a lovely message on Facebook Friday morning saying how much they'd enjoyed it.

Train timetables, tiredness and small children's getting-up times being what they are, I couldn't stick around for the whole night, but I managed to hear most of it. And I really liked what I heard: Beyond the Pale, a five-piece klezmer band; Asazi in a storming acoustic set; short story writer Tracey Emerson; and, of course, the Nite Fite cartoons. All ably compered by Ryan Van Winkle, better known to this blog as the Scottish Poetry Library's reader in residence.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Food and Ink

Got back on Saturday from a much-needed family break in Northumberland, then it was off to St Andrews on Monday for my Inklight reading, stopping off en route in Edinburgh for lunch with fellow HappenStance poet James Wood.

With a bit of time to kill between lunch and my train to Leuchars, I popped into the Scottish Poetry Library to do some final set building and have a quick read of James's "Song of Scotland", in the current issue of Poetry Review. I must go back to the poem. Seeing it on the page confirmed my impressions on hearing him read from it at the Mirrorball gig the other week. It's very strong, hugely entertaining and lays down a barbed challenge to a number of lazy attitudes and assumptions on both sides of the border.

St Andrews being a slightly awkward place to get to, I opted to stay overnight. The train, of course, ran somewhat late, so there was only just time to check in at the B&B before dashing round to The Grill House for a quick meal with Laila and Charlotte from the Inklight committee (£10.95 for two courses and a drink on their early evening menu; recommended) and from there to the venue.

The reading was in the North Hall of the All Saints Rectory (a Scottish Episcopal Church building I remember from previous StAnzas). An intimate room, shall we say, but all the better for that. The audience of about 20 people, mostly students, pretty much filled the seats. I really enjoyed reading to a mostly new audience, but it was great to have Brian Johnstone, Paula Jennings and Anna Crowe there too.

I read two sets, all but two of the poems coming from The Ambulance Box. The first set focused very much on the poems of loss and grief at the heart of the collection. And, following the convention Rob A Mackenzie began, here's the list:

1) The Invention of Zero
2) His Wading Light
3) A Voice is Heard in Ramah
4) Down Darkness Wide
5) Coronach
6) Saxifrage
7) Dream Family Holiday
8) 45 Minutes
9) Lullaby
10) Notes to Self

Hardly light, I confess, but the audience was attentive and very appreciative. It's always particularly pleasing to get good feedback from a set of those pieces.

The second half was shorter, less intense and more of a rag bag:

1) The Meisure o a Nation
2) Cardiac
3) Man with a Dove on His Head
4) The White Dot
5) Spanish Dancer
6) Improvisation for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time
7) The Melody at Night, With You
8) In Praise of Dust

This lot went down well too; laughs and chuckles in all the right places! I'd never read "The White Dot" before and was pleased how well it worked. Not only that, I sold six copies of the sampler pamphlet.

Unfortunately, there wasn't time for a question and answer session after the reading, but a handful of us sauntered to the pub after the Inlight committee had locked up. We had quite a good-going discussion about, among other things, Don Paterson's opinions on the connections between sound and meaning.

I had a great time, rounded off well the next morning by a hearty cooked breakfast and a chat with the other guest at the B&B, who turned out to be a regular StAnzagoer (and thanks for dropping by here already, Di).

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Salt's Poetry Bank

This being national poetry day, it seems a good time to wave Salt's new poetry book club, The Poetry Bank, under your nose. If you like the look of the Salt lists, you'll like this:

From just £40 you can subscribe to Salt’s Poetry Bank for one year and receive the following benefits:

  • Four luxury, first edition, hardback books, selected for you by our own Editor, delivered to you POST-FREE

  • 30% discount on ALL Salt books, including our full range of short stories, poetry, translations, companions, guides and critical books, and our gift books and anthologies

  • A FREE copy of the unique full-colour gift book Poets in View by Chris Emery as a welcome present to new subscribers

Looks like a pretty good deal.

And the Winners Are ...

Mick Imlah, Kathryn Simmonds and Don Paterson. No real surprise on the main Forward prize and possibly not an enormous surprise on the best poem prize, but Kathyrn Simmonds's win in the best first collection category seems to have been unexpected. To be honest, I can't really comment, not having read any of the winners (for the nth year running!), so I'll leave the commenting to my fellow poetry bloggers. So far, of those I follow, Rob A Mackenzie and Matt Merritt (who was at the award ceremony and has a poem in the Forward anthology), Colin Will and Todd Swift have commented. As others pitch in, I'll update this post and continue to extend the list. There will probably be some discussion of the merits/demerits of the choices on this Poets on Fire thread.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Poets on Radio 3

I love the work of Michael Symmons Roberts. He's one of the finest writers in Britain at the moment and quite possibly the best religious poet we have. This year, he has published two books: his second novel, Breath, and his fifth collection of poems, The Half-Healed. Both fine books, of which I intend to say more in due course. In this coming Sunday's Sunday Feature on Radio 3, he'll be exploring why elegy is such an enduring poetic mode. Apparently, he

talks to poets Douglas Dunn, Michael Longley and Gillian Clarke about their own elegies and discusses with Andrew Motion the challenges of writing elegies at times of public mourning. Michael writes a series of elegies to the elegists of the past and asks whether, in the way it captures lost moments, objects and people, all poetry is elegy.

Michael's radio style is distinctive and interesting. Should be worth hearing.

Another fine poet and novelist, John Burnside, was the guest on Sunday past's Private Passions, also on Radio 3. I like the programme for its focus on music, as befits its home. Burnside's choices are varied and beautiful; his comments on them typically intelligent and illuminating of his sensibilities and insights. Definitely worth listening to on the iPlayer before next Sunday's edition expunges it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Inklight Reading: Venue Details etc

Details for the St Andrew's reading are just in:

Venue: The North Hall, All Saints Rectory, North Street, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9AQ
Date: Monday 20th October
Time: 7:30 pm - 8:45 pm, Refreshments served at 7:30pm.
Entrance: Inklight members £2, non members £3.

I'll be reading from the manuscript for The Ambulance Box. Not the first time I've read from the collection, but it's the first substantial reading I'll have done since I assembled the manuscript in its current form. (And, incidentally, the first one ever where mine is the only name on the bill ... )

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Catch-up Time

Busy busy busy at the moment here. It's good busy, though. I've proofed my proofs, sent 'em back and had author photos taken for the book (of which more in due course); I'm gearing up for Linlithgow Book Festival and this month's various readings; and I'm working on a Scots language writing project in the secondary school in a neighbouring town. Somewhere in among all this, I prentend to find time to breathe.

Anent LBF, we're delighted that we have our first sell-out event: there are no more tickets left for Christopher Brookmyre's reading on the Friday! There are still tickets left for everything else, but don't delay. And don't forget the open mike reading at 8:30pm on the Saturday night, which I'm hosting.

Speaking of readings, the first of my October run was the St Mungo's Mirrorball HappenStance showcase on Thursday just gone. Turnout was decent despite the less than friendly weather. It was especially encouraging to see some folk who were at the event Helena Nelson and I did at the Mitchell Library for the Scottish Poetry Library a while back and to learn that that had been a significant point for at least one of them.

As for the readings themselves, it was an evening of great contrasts in style of writing and performance, but with a lot of good work. That's the glory of these gatherings. There were eight of us reading--myself, Michael Munro, Patricia Ace, and James W Wood; Paula Jennings, Eleanor Livingstone, Margaret Christie and Rob A Mackenzie. I'm only going to pick out the highlights of the evening for me.

I was very, very impressed with James's new long poem, "The Song of Scotland". It's been published in the latest Poetry Review and, to judge by the excerpts he read, such high-profile publication is well deserved; it's a strong, imaginative, distinctive piece of writing. A rant, yes, but there's a great pedigree of those in poetry. James's HappenStance pamphlet is well worth getting hold of, and I must buy his latest, which is published by Linlithgow-based Jane McKie's Knucker Press.

It was also particularly good to hear Paula Jennings again. Her pamphlet, From the Body of the Green Girl, was so hot off the press it had been pressed into her hand that evening and isn't on the website yet. I like her inquisitive sense of craft, form and line; her quiet confidence and her imagination. Paula was a Shore poet for a while, and it's a shame she was unable to continue as part of the group.

Helena Nelson read only two poems: one at the beginning and one at the end. The latter was a lament for Duncan Glen in ballad form and in Scots. Very brave of Nell, as she's from Cheshire, but she pulled it off beautifully (and I don't say that lightly). She's writing some extremely good formal work these days. The evening was, also, in a way, a celebration of Nell's energy, her skill as an editor and what she has achieved with the press. That's as it should be. She never ceases to amaze me.

There was, of course, an added sense of celebration, given that Rob and I were both reading not only from our HappenStance chapbooks but from the manuscripts of our forthcoming Salt collections. In publishing our pamphlets, Nell undoubtedly gave both our writing careers significant boosts towards that goal, so our celebrations and successes are also very much hers.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Success for Rob

Fantastic news: my friend, fellow HappenStancer and fine poetry blogger Rob A Mackenzie has had his manuscript accepted by Salt to be published some time next year. The book (provisionally entitled The Opposite of Cabbage after a line in one of the poems--can't accuse him of having a dull title!), is really strong and will make a great addition to that list. It'll be a must for anyone interested in lively, intelligent, distinctive contemporary poetry, and I'm so pleased we'll have our first collections out from the same press in the same year. Well done and many congratulations to Rob!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Duncan Glen 1933-2008

I was saddened to hear yesterday that the poet, publisher, critic, designer and typographer Duncan Glen had died. He was not someone I knew well, although I did meet him once or twice. My contact with him came through the Scottish Poetry Library, with which he was closely involved. Indeed, he designed many SPL publications, including the first gathering of poems I ever worked on, Variations on a new song: Poems from the Holyrood Poetry Link Scheme. He was the founder of Akros Publications and the magazine Zed2O, which is celebrated in WN Herbert's poem "Talking Water Blues". Duncan was a significant force in Scottish and Scots language letters and will be sorely missed. Colin Will, who knew him well, and Rob Mackenzie have both posted tributes. There is a full biography of Duncan on the Akros web pages.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Readings Galore!

October is shaping up to be a busy month. Not only is there the HappenStance reading at St Mungos Mirrorball in Glasgow on Thursday the 2nd, but I'll be reading for InkLight, a student creative writing society at St Andrews University on Monday the 20th. The venue for the latter isn't confirmed yet, so more details when I know them. I'll also be reading at the Golden Hour at Edinburgh's Forest Cafe on Wednesday the 22nd.

Coming hard on the heels of those readings, I'm leading the poetry workshop and hosting the open mike at Linlithgow Book Festival on 1st November. Hope to see some of you there.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Step Closer to Reality

Another significant moment here: first proofs arrived in my inbox from Chris at Salt! I spotted them on my webmail while I was still at work and it's a wonder none of my colleagues asked why the mile-wide grin and slight strut down the scuffed wooden walkway at the centre of the office. But then, we official reporters can all get pretty caught up in the hectic rhythm of a plenary day, so it's not that much of a wonder, I suppose.

That's The Ambulance Box an important step closer to becoming a reality. I know how my weekend will be taken up. Never has proof reading seemed such an enticing proposition.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Horizon Comes Into View!

The first issue of the new Salt webzine Horizon Review, edited by Jane Holland, is now online. It includes one poem of mine, "On Your Arrival", as well as two poems by Rob Mackenzie, and work by Katy Evans-Bush, George Szirtes and Alison Brackenbury to name only a few. There are also fiction, reviews and comment. In short, a lot to explore, and much more pleasingly presented than some webzines. Exciting to be in at the beginning of something, even if only in a modest way.

One Night Stanzas

Just last week, I came across Claire Askew's new blog, One Night Stanzas, designed to guide young or inexperienced writers through some of the thornier thickets of life as a poet. It's a useful site with lots of good advice (and stylish photographs!) worth a look even for those of us with a modicum of experience under our belts. For instance, in her post on beating writer's block, Claire makes this interesting recommendation, which I hope she doesn't mind me quoting in full (if she does, I'll reduce it to the title):

Read poetry you don’t like.
I got this one from a former creative writing tutor, and funnily enough, it works. Everyone has a poet they really, really hate – often one whose work they’ve been forced to analyse in school. Who’s yours? Maybe you have a few? And probably the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling creatively challenged is look at the poetry of someone whose very name gets you foaming at the mouth with loathing. Well, try it. Drag out Wordsworth’s Daffodils or Keats’ Grecian Urn or whatever your least-favourite poem happens to be, and read it over once again. This time, ask yourself: why do I hate this poem? Is it because it’s actually a bad poem, or is there another reason? Do I hate it because I don’t fully understand it? Because I associate it with something negative? Or is it just not to my taste? Think about what puts this particular poet on your personal blacklist… and then do the opposite. Try to find good bits in the poem – is there a particular line that stands out from the rest? Does the basic idea of the poem appeal to you? Has the poet used any unusual words or created an interesting metaphor? Analyse the poem fairly – and from a personal point of view (none of this textbook-style, “what are the hidden meanings?” stuff). Once you’ve worked out why you can’t stand this poet – or once you’ve realised that actually, maybe they’re not a total imbecile – you can start to think about your own work. Write the antithesis of a Wordsworth poem, or try putting yourself in Keats’ shoes and writing in his style. Reading your most hated author really can inspire you, honest. Try it!

Ingenious and generous!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Reginald Shepherd, 1963-2008

In common with many in the poetry blogosphere, I was shocked and sadened to read that the American poet, critic and blogger Reginald Shepherd died this week, aged only 45. The news came to me through Ron Silliman's blog, which is fitting, as it was a link from a post of his that first took me to Shepherd's blog.

Shepherd blogged with clarity, warmth and intelligence, always at length. The post of his that first alerted me to the quality of his reflection was his superb post On Difficulty in Poetry: a revision. Not the grinding, pointless, tiresome polemic about "accessibility" vs "difficulty" one often hears, just real thinking and insight.

I can't improve on or add to the tributes to him by other bloggers, some of whom knew him other than through this peculiar, wonderful, infuriating medium, to which he brought a great deal of sanity. Read them, but be sure to read his writing.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Adventures in Scottish Cuisine

The Scottish Parliament's canteen, following triumphs such as "Cumbernauld sausage" (I kid you not, though I was off at the time so I didn't see it myself), "Scotch broth soup" (stock, barley and tautology) and "cous-cous tabouleh" (I was under the impression it could either be cous-cous or tabouleh, people) is today offering "haggis broth". Sadly, I won't be sampling this delicacy (which can be detected at 50 paces, apparently) as I have my own lunch with me. I'm one to talk, though: my lunch is Ryvitas and sardines.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Draft Poem: Watergaw

This is the second of my projected series of poems in English but whose titles are Scots weather terms. I'll leave it up for a week at the most.

[Poem deleted 18/09/08]

The astute among you will have noticed that the titles of this and the previous draft poem ("Onding") are both words that appear in MacDiarmid's poem "The Watergaw". The MacDiarmid link is not wholly unintentional although, if the sequence continues, it won't be confined to words from that poem.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Lullaby

this is the arm that held you
this is the hand that cradled your cold feet

these are the ears that heard you
whimper and cough throughout your brush with light

this is the chest that warmed you
these are the eyes that caught your glimpse of life

this is the man you fathered—
his voided love, his writhen pride and grief

(This poem appears in Andrew Philip: A Sampler and will also be in The Ambulance Box.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Great Grog Date Changed

The date for my Great Grog reading has changed. In view of the fact that The Ambulance Box is due out in March, I'll now be reading on Sunday 10th May 2009 alongside Robert Crawford, Brian Johnstone (co-founder of Shore Poets as well as co-founder and director of StAnza) and one other poet to be confirmed. I'm excited to be part of that line-up. Brian's next collection is due to be published by Arc in April. I heard him read from it in August and am looking forward to seeing the book. Crawford is one of Scotland's leading poets and an excellent reader. It should be a good evening.

Friday, August 15, 2008

10 Minutes, Four Hours, One Day

Here is the full information for my reading tomorrow at the Four Hour Festival:

Venue: Evolution Cafe, Evolution House. This is the entrance to eca on the West Port. It's a big glass building right on the corner of the crossroads, apparently.

Time: I'm on at 3pm. The event starts at 1pm with Shore Poet Nancy Somerville. Rob Mackenzie is on straight after Nancy and Ryan Van Winkle is on at 2pm.

Cost: Your time, not your cash. (But if you'd like to buy a pamphlet I'd be most grateful.)

I plan to read from Andrew Philip: A Sampler, the manuscript for The Ambulance Box and one new poem. Hope to see you there.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bullet Points

The new PBS Bulletin and choice arrived today. I can't let this pass without noting that Katy Evans-Bush (aka Ms Baroque) is the first Salt poet to have her first collection mentioned in the Bulletin. (Curiously, her book's cover isn't shown.) Big congratulations to Katy! Next quarter, Tim Dooley goes one better by being the first Salt poet to get a recommendation. Gaun yersel, Tim!! Janet Fisher is also mentioned, next to Katy, which makes it the first time Salt has got two books in the Bulletin. Congratulations to Janet too.

Pax? Pax?

Here's all I have to say about this story:

The Pax can belt a Mac at Night
xxMiscaw wir Bard and aw that
But critic's care's abuin his might;
xxGuid faith, he mauna faw that!
For aw that and aw that,
xxHis sarky sneers and aw that,
The pith o sense and pride o worth
xxAre higher ranks than aw that.

Meanwhile, in less carnaptious news, Burns's words are to be inscribed on the transport system in the west of Scotland. At a cost of £15,000, the scheme seems pretty cheap. Perhaps we can afford to do something similar for more of Scotland's great poets. (Maybe a sequence of topiary somewhere to commemorate MacDiarmid.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lithuanian Poets

To the Book Festival yesterday for a reading by three Lithuanian poets: Eugenijus Alisanka, Gintaras Grajauskas and Sigitas Parulskis, representing one half of the anthology Six Lithuanian Poets. It was a fairly small audience, not even filling up the smallest of the festival's performance tents. A pity, really, because the absentees missed themselves: it was a very good reading. The poets read their work in Lithuanian, with the translations read by somebody from Arc whose name I forget but whose face is familiar (though she does look very much like Iseabail McLeod formerly of Scottish Language Dictionaries). I'm utterly unfamiliar with Lithuanian, but it was still fairly easy to hear some of the rhythm and song that was missing from the translations, although the latter weren't bad poems in English either.

Next definite on my festival list is "Jidariyya", by the Palestinian National Theatre. It's based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, who died at the weekend, so it ticks the poetry box too. After that, it's my 3pm appearance at the "Four Hour Festival" on Saturday, though I'm hoping I'll get the chance to look in on other West Port Book Festival events too.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

45 Minutes

My poem "45 Minutes" has just been posted on the Artisan Initiatives website. It was written for the Artisan magazine time-themed issue, but they couldn't fit in. Never mind, I'm happy with online publication and very pleased to contribute. However, when you read it, bear in mind that each of the lines beginning "time enough" is supposed to be indented, which it isn't on the web page, and that the other lines have run over the end of the rather tight space it has been put in. It does nark somewhat when people ignore the shape of the poem on the page, but perhaps my long lines were somewhat impractical for the publication!

Update: the formatting has now been corrected and the poem looks as I intended it. (Thanks, Jess!)

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Clear Beginning

My 2008 Edinburgh festival season began last night with a trip to the Usher Hall to hear the BBC SSO under Ilan Volkov perform Thomas Adès’s Tevot and Olivier Messiaen’s final work, Éclairs sur L'Au-delà.

Tevot, a recent composition, was described in the programme note (which you can find here) as “effectively Adès’s second symphony”; if that’s the case, at just over 20 minutes long, it’s a fiendishly compressed one. Of course, it’s certainly not the first symphony to consist of a single movement, but the pace of the musical development for the first third or so seemed relentless. The string writing often seemed to be in opposition to what the rest of the orchestra was doing and, just as I had begun to absorb what was happening, the music would shift direction, forcing my ear to retune itself again. However, the piece climaxes with an intensely beautiful, moving treatment of a simple rocking melodic figure that starts out on the strings, is passed along the woodwind and then developed by the orchestra as a whole before the string writing begins to separate itself slightly from the rest of the orchestra again.

I had half-listened to Tevot on the radio a couple of weeks ago, but this was the first time I’d heard any Adès properly. I was certainly left wanting to hear the piece again. I have every intention of investigating his previous work and following his future compositions.

The Messiaen was the piece I was really waiting for. I’ve blogged before about the significance of Messiaen’s music for me, and I’ve loved this work since I first heard it on Radio 3 in 2004 played by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Simon Rattle, whose recording I cannot recommend highly enough.

Éclairs sur L'Au-delà couldn’t be more different from Tevot in many respects. If the latter seemed a bit impetuous at times, Éclairs was more than a tonic: Messiaen certainly takes his time to explore his hope and vision of heaven in 11 movements ranging in length from less than two minutes to more than 11. You’ll be glad to hear I won’t attempt a blow-by-blow account of the piece or performance, but I will, of course, say something.

Éclairs is full of Messiaen’s characteristic tonal colour and rhythmic/harmonic invention. It opens with an incredible chorale for brass. Here—and in the the fifth and final movements, in which the strings take up the song—the almost static harmonies and melody the create an expansive musical space, a sound world that I almost feel able to walk about in. It’s difficult to describe the emotional tone and impact of these movements. Words such as majestic, sombre, rapt and ecstatic come to mind but none of them capture the profound sense of something beyond understanding, beyond tension and peace. I have to say, though, Volkov and BCC SSO didn’t quite put this across as powerfully as Rattle and the Berlin Phil.

There is, naturally with Messiaen, plenty birdsong throughout the piece. Here, the woodwind shone brightly, especially in the gloriously, joyfully chaotic ninth movement, “Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de Vieu”. But there was some tremendous playing throughout, notably from the flautists.

All in all, it was a fine performance. Bits of Éclairs are filling my head even now. That’s probably my live Messiaen fix for another year or so, so I’d better live off it as long as I can.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Benali Hits the Fringe

More excitement here yesterday when I discovered that "Yasser" was on at the Assembly Rooms this Fringe. Why? Well, it's written by someone I know: the Dutch Moroccan novelist Abdelkader Benali. I haven't seen or heard from Abdel for a long while, but I keep loosely up to date with his life and career through our good mutual friends. My Dutch (practically non-existent) isn't good enough to appreciate his work in the original, so I'm delighted at the opportunity to experience it in English on my home soil.

Contracted

A big moment here yesterday: my contract from Salt for The Ambulance Box came through. It feels such a significant point to have reached; the book is that next step closer to becoming a reality! I was almost as excited as when Chris Hamilton-Emery accepted it! (You can tell by the number of exclamation marks in this post.) Now there's work to do on biographical notes (I'm used to them), describing the book (something I'm much less practised at)--blurby stuff, in other words--and thinking further about how to market it.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Phantom Purchase

The Herald reports today that the title painting from Alison Watt's recent National Gallery exhibition, which I saw during my trip to London in May, has been bought by the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. I'm delighted it'll be on permanent display reasonably close to home.

Just heard the excellent news that Dedalus Press in Dublin will be publishing my friend Ray Givans next year. Ray has had several small press publications previously, but this will be his first full collection. I'm delighted our first collections will be out in the same year.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Slotting In

My time for the "Four Hour Festival" event has been confirmed: I'm on at 15:00 and it's a 10-minute set. Plenty time to get myself organised for that.

The event is open to prose as well as poetry and I've no idea what the balance between the two will be, but it should be fun. It also includes Shore Poet Nancy Somerville at 13:00; fellow blogger and HappenStancer Rob A Mackenzie at 13:10; and the Scottish Poetry Library's new reader in residence, Ryan Van Winkle, at 14:00. That's three other poets at least. I don't recognise any of the other names on the bill, so I'm looking forward to hearing some unfamiliar writers, including the fabulously named Jimmy Warblegoose.

Forward Reading +

Dropped into the Scottish Poetry Library to pick up a couple of the books on the shortlist for the Forward best first collection prize. I've decided to focus on that prize because of the stage I'm at in my own publishing history. Frances Leviston's and Andrew Forster's books were the only two from the list on the shelves, so I've come away with them.

They'll have to wait a little, however, until I'm finished Window for a Small Blue Child by Gerrie Fellows. It's a cracking book. I knew it would be good because I heard Gerrie read from it when we appeared together for the Poetry Association of Scotland last year, but I'm enthralled by its power and lyricism and I'm enjoying it hugely. Get your hands on it.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Forward Shortlists 2008

In the past few days, this year's Forward Prize shortlists have been announced. Here they are in full:

Main Prize
Jamie McKendrick - Crocodiles & Obelisks (Faber)
Sujata Bhatt - Pure Lizard (Carcanet)
Mick Imlah - The Lost Leader (Faber)
Jane Griffiths- Another Country (Bloodaxe)
Jen Hadfield - Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe)
Catherine Smith - Lip (Smith Doorstop)

First Book
Simon Barraclough - Los Alamos Mon Amour (Salt)
Andrew Forster - Fear of Thunder (Flambard)
Frances Leviston - Public Dream (Picador)
Allison McVety - The Night Trotsky Came to Stay (Smith Doorstop)
Stephanie Norgate - Hidden River (Bloodaxe)
Kathryn Simmonds - Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren)

Single Poem
Seamus Heaney - "Cutaways"
Christopher Buehlman - "Wanton"
Catherine Ormell - "Campaign Desk, December 1812"
Don Paterson - "Love Poem for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze"
Kate Rhodes - "Wells-next-the-Sea"
Tim Turnbull - "Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn"

It would be idle for me to comment on the quality of the choices because, as usual, I've read hardly any of books on the shortlists. (The only one I have read is Hadfield's, which is strong, inventive and fresh.) However, I can see it's another good year for the small presses, especially on the first collection list. I'm glad to see Salt there for the third year running (not that I have any vested interest, you understand!) even if it's with fewer titles than last year. Simon Barraclough's book is being talked about as a strong contender, though Frances Leviston's seems to be considered the frontrunner. It's also a pleasure to see and acquaintance, Andrew Forster, appear on the list.

Cape is conspicuous by its absence in either of the collection categories. A shame there are no Salt titles on the shortlist for the main prize. If I remember rightly, Luke Kennard's The Harbour Beyond the Movie was the only book on last year's main list from a press outside the Mighty Handful; the pattern is repeated this year with Catherine Smith's collection in that position.

Of course, next year I might not be quite so dispassionate about the whole thing ...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Professionals

Just discovered this page of interview excerpts from a small gathering of big-name poets. It's something of a mixed bunch to my eye (no great fan of Betjeman, me), but it looks worth investigating and at least it's pretty international. I'll certainly be commenting on Walcott's remarks on rhyme at some point once I've digested them a bit more and formulated my response.

I'm intrigued by the url: "... audiointerviews/professions/poets ..." Perhaps someone at BBC Four is under the impression there's an awful lot more money in poetry than any of us involved it think.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Pretending to be Normal

You know, I haven't written anything for weeks. It's not a case of writer's block as much as one of writer's break, one of those fallow periods you have now and then. In past years, I've found the summer a surprisingly unproductive season: I never write on holiday (so I no longer expect myself to); my day job slows down to such an extent that the dust even loses all motivation to shift in the stale air; and August gets filled with the festivals.

I've come to accept that summer isn't a time to try to push myself into generating new poems. But it's an odd sensation, since I feel like I'm pretending to be a normal person. The pretence can't last long, of course. I start to fidget interally and can't really rest after a while. And normal people don't exactly get excited about going to a Messiaen concert or get interested in hearing Lithuanian poets read. In fact, I have strong suspicion that all normal people usually found in Edinburgh evaporate for the month of August, perhaps due to the heat generated by the sudden influx of artistic types from all over the globe. Maybe there's a solution to the looming energy crisis in there somewhere. Now, if only we could find a way to harness ...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Adès on Beauty

I like this comment on beauty from composer Thomas Adès (from an article in the Telegraph on his recent piece about the creation):

"Why would anyone be ashamed of beauty? It's a very 20th-century idea that you might be. Thankfully that's gone."

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Four Hour Festival

I have a slot on the West Port Book Festival's "Four Hour Festival" event. No time confirmed as yet, but I'll post when it is. You can find the full programme here.

Culinary Gems in Kintyre

No apologies for the silence over the past fortnight or so, as I've quite enjoyed the wee break. We returned a week ago from seven days in Caradale on the Kintyre peninsula and life has been quite busy since. The weather in Kintyre was very mixed, but the scenery was (as the photos below show) fabulous:

Don't you just love the light in this one?

And there was some great food. If you find yourself in the area, drop by the tearoom at the Caradale Network Centre. Everything is freshly made on the premises (apart from the vanilla ice cream but, as there are three other flavours, that's no loss) and delicious. Reasonably priced, too.

Further north, at Skipness, is the Seafood Cabin. The weather was dismal on the morning we were there, so a bowl of moules marineres sounded like a good idea. It wasn't: it was a fantastic idea. Best mussels I've tasted in ages. My only regret was that we didn't make it back to try out the other fare on the menu.

All in all, it was a relaxing week. I managed to read Ciaran Carson's wonderful For All We Know and Hazel Frew's collection Seahorses as well as get stuck into a selection of Van Gogh's letters I've had on my shelf for ages. Now the madness of August is staring us in the face, and I'm counting the pennies to work out how much I can see.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Knucker Launch

Jane McKie's Knucker Press launches what looks like an interesting new pamphlet tonight: Way Out by Victoria Macrae. Here's what the press's website has to say about it:

In early 2008 Victoria Macrae spent 65 days, 19 hours and 37 minutes as an in-patient in Ward 6 of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. During this period the view from her window became very important to her: "I needed to see the outside world and connect somehow to the outdoors. I began noticing the way the light hit the architecture at different times of the day; the way the windows opposite would move in the gales and reflect sunlight temporarily into my room. The effects of the changing sky and weather, and the importance of finding beauty in something that would not be seen as traditionally beautiful, was an important part of my recovery". She created a unique visual record of that time with the camera on her mobile phone. 'Way Out' is a beautiful and affecting folded concertina pamphlet with a selection of Victoria's full colour photos and word poems.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it to the launch, but I'll definitely be keeping my eye on the Knucker publications.

Monday, July 07, 2008

New Fest on the Block

As yesterday's Sunday Herald reports, Edinburgh has a new book festival this year in addition to the established Edinburgh International Book Festival. It's called the West Port Book Festival, and it's all free! You can find out more here. The programme doesn't launch until 11th July, so I can't tell you any more, but from what the Sunday Herald could reveal, it sounds like a good line-up.

This isn't the first time there's been an alternative event to the EIBF. The Edinburgh Book Fringe ran a couple of years, focusing intentionally on Scottish authors who didn't get (much of) a look-in on the festival in Charlotte Square, but those were paying events. The Thirsty Lunch was something more similar to the West Port venture, but I've seen no sign of that continuing this year. Perhaps the West Port festival will stick around a bit longer. I certainly like the idea of holding the events in second-hand book shops.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Artist on a Quest Again

Time once again to highlight the blog of my good friend and sometime collaborator, the painter David Martin. Two years ago, he embarked on an epic tour of the middle east to gather material for his Salvesen award exhibition, following the trail of Hermes Trismegistus. His blog of that adventure proved him to be a distinctive and entertaining writer as well as a fine artist.

Dave is on his travels once again. This year, he's wandering through Ethiopia and Eritrea. As with the previous occasion, his blog is proving to be fascinating, lively reading. Photos and sketches are already appearing.

This is one of my favourite shots so far. I love the way he's just playing table football out the open with a bunch of guys as if he was in the side room of some Edinburgh pub.

Dave also has a new website. Check out his work if you don't already know it. If you do, reacquaint yourself.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Against the Football

Shore Poets on Sunday went head to head with the Euro 2008 finals. That, coupled with the start of the holidays, might well have had something to do with the somewhat reduced numbers. I have to say, it was a cracker of an evening.

The new poet, Simon Pomery, was one of the best we've had for a while. He wasn't the most relaxed in his introductions but, once he got into the poems themselves, he read well. And there were some really strong poems in his set. There's some of his work here. He read "Jeremiah" and several poems from his "Divina Lux" series, but not the ones you can view online. Simon has a pamphlet coming out with Tall Lighthouse in the autumn, if I remember rightly; worth looking out for.

Roddy Lumsden is behind the Tall Lighthouse pamphlets, which provides a link between Simon and the Shore poet for the evening: Angela McSeveney, with whom Roddy overlapped at Edinburgh University. Angela read with her usual skill and aplomb from Slaughtering Beetroot, her fine new Mariscat pamphlet. She's currently poet of the month on the Scottish Poetry Library website.

Richard Price, the main reader, read from his first two books as well as new work. Richard is a fabulous, mesmerising reader. His work is always fascinating, stimulating and strangely beautiful. You can hear him on PoetCasting and the Archive of the Now and I recommend you take a listen. Better still, buy Lucky Day, Greenfields and/or some of his pamphlets.

Interestingly, Richard has been writing a lot of rhyming poetry recently. Although this takes him away from the spare modernism of earlier work to a certain extent, a Richard Price poem in ballad form is still unlike anything else you'll read or hear. Nonetheless, there's an extremely strong song element to these poems, so it's no surprise he's been writing song lyrics too. In fact, her read one song; you'd be hard pushed to distinguish it formally or stylistically from some of the recent poems. And I mean that as a compliment.

That gives us a kind of link to Sunday's music. Stewart Hanratty was excellent, with powerful, jazz-tinged songwriting and guitar playing. After his song about hats, it was inevitable that Angela should read her poem on the same subject. You'll just have to buy the pamphlet to read it, though!

Sunday's event was my last as a Shore poet. I've stepped down from the group after, I think six years, owing partly to a busier family life. It has been great fun to be part of Shore Poets, but it's time to concentrate my energies elsewhere. I still plan to be around the readings, so this won't be the last SP gig report you'll read here. I went out on a high, though: I won the famous Shore Poets lemon cake.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Price of Pomegranates

Why would anyone pay £1.50 for a pomegranate? I like them and all that, but £1.50 for a single piece of fruit? Oh yes, silly me: they're superfoods, a class of comestible scientifically proven to make the marketing managers salivate three times as fast.* We got two for 35p apiece from the reduced-to-clear basket the other day. I mean, if they can flog 'em off for that, what's the original mark-up?

*Did you like that null comparative? Sarcasm's miles better.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Back to Front?

There's an extensive, thoughtful and very positive review of the sampler over at Jim Murdoch's ever stimulating blog The Truth about Lies. Jim comments on each of the poems in turn, as well as on general aspects of the pamphlet as an object and collection. This is the paragraph that most interests me:

As a poet myself I'm inclined to have my meanings at the forefront of my poems, not that I discount feelings but they've always tended to be something of an aside with me. Philip's poetry, to my mind, concentrates on feelings and the meanings are put on the back burner. These are poems you can't read, tick the box – Yeah, I get that one – and then pass onto the next one. ... A star has exploded and these are fragments rippling away, getting further and further apart, remnants; they meant something when they were whole. Now they are not meaningless but they mean less and Philip is desperately trying to cling onto that meaning. The feelings are clear and unambiguous however.

Always fascinating to see how others read your work, isn't it? I'm interested that Jim thinks I put meaning "on the back burner". I'd certainly agree that meaning is not "at the forefront" of my work as it is for him. That's perhaps the fundamental difference in our poetics: I don't discount the skill and craft of writing something with meaning at the forefront--perhaps I even do it occasionally--but that kind of poetry has never interested me as much as more layered, multivalent poetry has. So that's often what I aim for: something that layers meaning; that can access a sense beyond the surface meaning; that will draw the reader back to discover new meaning on subsequent readings.

I wouldn't call that putting meaning "on the back burner". To my ears, that phrase sounds a touch pejorative in this context. However, Jim is anything but negative about the pamphlet, so I guess he didn't mean it that way. In fact, he says the sampler is

a collection of poems by a man trying to make sense out of something that will never make sense, trying to imbue words with meanings they were never intended to hold and, where that fails, creating new words to try and get his point across.

Absolutely spot on. This is perhaps where we come to the emotions in the poetic. The poems in question being largely about grief and bereavement,* it's hardly surprising that emotion should strike a sensitive and intelligent reader as being at the forefront. Nonetheless, Jim acknoweldges the attempt to make sense (ie, meaning) out of it.

What we have here is the collision or collusion of meaning and emotion. Writing poetry has probably always been to me a means of thinking through my emotions, even more vitally so since I began writing about losing my son, Aidan. And I mean thinking through in a double sense: making sense of my emotional life; and using my emotions as a stimulus to thought. That's not the sum of my poetics, but it's probably a central part. After all, we're talking about an important aspect of the way I'm made: a reasonably intelligent/intellectual individual but, at the same time, uncommonly emotional for a man.**

Thinking again about the relative positioning of meaning and emotion in my poetry, I'd like to suggest that I'm not backgrounding meaning but foregrounding possibilities in the language. Fundamentally, poetry is about language: what we can do with it and what we can do to get beyond it.*** The poem's meaning is a function of the poem as an instance of language--a language event, if I can put it like that--with all the complexity of interaction between the text, the writer and the reader(s) that that implies. That too is a central part of what I'm trying to do. I'm not saying I apply this understanding in the most sophisticated way, but it's definitely mixed into the mortar.

Some of these thoughts have been rattling round in my wee heid for a while, but it's taken Jim's appraisal to get them out into the open, slightly random though they are. My thanks to him for providing the impetus and, above all, for taking the time to read and review the pamphlet so thoroughly.


*This holds for "Tonguefire Night" too in ways I didn't know and could never have known when I wrote it, although I understood at some level the cultural grief and bereavement that it touches on.

**Though not especially sensitive to emotional atmosphere, strangely enough. Aren't we humans complicated sometimes?

***"Poetry is only there to frame the silence", as Alice Oswald said in an interview.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

More Laurels for Morgan

Somehow, I had missed until the middle of this week the news that Edwin Morgan has won this year's Sundial Scottish Arts Council book of the year award for A Book of Lives. Shame on me!

Not having read the collection--or any of the other finalists, for that matter--I can't comment on its merits, but there's no doubt that Morgan is and always has been a remarkable writer. He's perhaps the most widely known of that significant seam of writers who have demonstrated how possible it is to combine experimental and mainstream poetics in one career, even in one poem. Above all, his work--serious, subtle and craftful as it is--teams with imagination, verve and wit. He is a poet for the variousness of today. Incidentally, he's the first poet I ever saw read live and probably the first living poet I read extensively off my own bat, unprompted by any course syllabus.

It's always encouraging to see poetry winning when it goes head to head with other genres in awards like this one. The poetry shortlist was strong; Carcanet dominated with three titles, while Cape and Edinburgh's Luath had one apiece. But Morgan wasn't the only poet among the finalists: the winner of the first book category was fellow Linlithgow resident Jane McKie, whose first collection, Morocco Rococo, is published by Wales's Cinnamon Press. She was up against a Cape chicklit title and a non-fiction book from Scotland's Sandstone Press so, all in all, it was a good showing for small presses too.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sampler Listed

Andrew Philip: A Sampler is now listed on the HappenStance website. I'll update the sidebar in due course.

[Sidebar updated.]

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Making the Most of the Web

Four poems by Matt Merritt, whose fine HappenStance pamphlet Making the Most of the Light came out in 2005 and whose first full collection Troy Town was published by Arrowhead earlier this year, have just been added to Alex Pryce's fantastic PoetCasting website. Well worth a listen.

PoetCasting itself has just had some good very news: it has secured funding from the Arts Council England to continue until mid 2010. It'll allow the site to start collaborating with poetry magazines and live poetry performance events, as well as enable it to continue podcasting an admirably broad range of poets. Gaun yersel, Alex!

A Beetrooty Launch and a Groggy Reading

A week past Tuesday, I went to the launch of Angela McSeveney's new Mariscat pamphlet Slaughtering Beetroot at the Scottish Poetry Library. I can safely say it's the only launch I've been to where beetroot cake was on offer. Angela had baked it herself, and it was, you may say, delicious. And the poetry was at least as good. I think this could be Angela's best collection yet. Her characteristic "clear-water shine" (Iain Crichton Smith) is, of course, in evidence, but it grows ever stronger mixed with a certain wry determination and a sense that she is perhaps more relaxed in herself and her writing than in previous work. Well worth parting with £5.00 for it.

-----------------------------------------------

Last Sunday was the final Poetry at the Great Grog before the summer break. Jim Carruth was the first reader. His is a distinctive voice, bringing the farming experience to us urban dwellers in unsentimental, inventive poems. No hint of the romanticising of the rural life here, although there is plenty of anger and regret, often below the surface. His love poem to silage (I kid you not) was a tour-de-force of rhyme. I'd quite like to get a hold of it and subject it to my usual "Reasoning Rhyme"-type analysis.

My memory of the order has gone a bit hazy at a week's remove, but I'm reasonably certain it was Mike Stocks next, before Eleanor Livingstone. Mike read very well from his collection of sonnets, Folly. However, I have to say, although there were some fine examples of what you can achieve within those confines, it left me feeling you can have too much of a good form, as do Alan Spence's all-haiku readings. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy such readings at all. Mike can write powerful* and funny sonnets, but sometimes I wanted him to make the form disappear.

Eleanor read well, mostly from new work, including memorable poems about her Fife childhood escapades and her daughter's reading habits.

Kapka Kassabova was the final reader. Kapka is from Bulgaria, via New Zealand, and writes about the experience of exile in a way that communicates strongly to us non-exiles. I say "us non-exiles", but there were other exiles in attendance and, besides, there's something in the Scottish psyche that could almost be described as exiled from itself or from its own history and culture. To me, Kapka's work speaks to that aspect of Scottishness, perhaps not directly, but powerfully.

I also met Julia Rampen, who will be reading at the Great Grog at some point next year. Julia was one of the Foyle Young Poets winners in 2005 and 2006, as well as a runner-up in the Tower Poetry competition in 2006 and one of the winners in The Rialto's fifth young poets competition. To judge by the poems I've linked to, she's obviously talented; I'm looking forward to hearing her read.

Poetry at the Great Grog will be back in September with Michael Schmidt, Helena Nelson, Dorothy Baird and another Foyle Young Poet, Charlotte Runcie.

*Perhaps none more so than the one here, which nearly made me cry when I read it. It wasn't in his set.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

I Had to Pinch Myself

It's been a momentous week in this neck of the woods. As you'll know if you've been following this blog for a while, I've been working on a full collection of poetry, swapping manuscripts with Rob A Mackenzie and submitting to publishers. On Tuesday, the collection--The Ambulance Box--was accepted by Salt, who propose to publish in the spring. I'm delighted. Salt not only have a really strong list, but a positive, 21st century approach to the web, which publishers ignore or downplay at their peril. I'm thoroughly looking forward to working with them.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Poems in the Big City

Sleepers. A fine idea if you can book a berth but a complete misnomer if cash and demand force you into a recliner (read "seat that hardly moves back") for the eight-hour journey. And my seat on the way down to London was the worst possible option: right next to the door to the toilet area and facing another occupied seat. Lots of shuffling and stumbling about next to my head. Ergo, no sleep till berth time (ie, the return journey).

I arrived in London Euston at 7:01 am--godforsaken shed of a place at that hour. I'd left a sunny Sunday in Scotland to come to a sodden Monday in London, with 13 hours to fill before the reading. I had breakfast at chop'd* in St Pancras; found out when the British Library opened; made my way down to Earl's Court to locate the Troubadour and time the journey, picking up a copy of Geoffrey Hill's Canaan for £1.50 en route in a Samaritans book shop; went back up to the British Library, where I sat in the cafe and mulled over a set for the evening before wandering round the exhibition on the Ramayana (fascinating, but a bit much on so little sleep); had lunch in a random noodle bar and observed the terminally damp Africa Day concert in Trafalgar Square.

Then, at 3pm, I was rescued from my wet solitude when I met up with Siriol Troup and Lorraine Mariner for coffee in the National Gallery. Siriol, Lorraine and I also went to the exhibition of new Alison Watt paintings. Beautiful, haunting work, as I've come to expect from Watt. In these, the sense of presence-in-absence is intensified by a new feature: substantial openings in the folds in the fabric that draw the eye, as you can see in this image.

After the gallery, we hopped on the Tube down to Earl's Court and the Troubadour. Helena Nelson and Eleanor Livingstone were already there waiting for the HappenStance band and supporters slowly gathered. Nell had me sign 50 copies of the sampler (sitting in a back room signing books: another sign of being a writer!). I'd not met any of the non-Scottish HappenStancers, but there were so many of us in the party I didn't get much of a chance to talk to them. However, I did have a great natter with Katy Evans-Bush of Baroque in Hackney fame and the chance to catch up with Sinéad Wilson, who I hadn't seen in a few years.

The reading was downstairs in the cellar bar and, when we headed down there, the place was already reasonably full. I was utterly amazed and delighted to see one of my Dutch friends among the audience, another friend I hadn't seen for ages. (He was in the country for an academic conference and had seen the reading trailed here.)

I was first up. At Nell's suggestion, I read the six uncollected poems from the sampler: "Singularity", "Lullaby", "Still" (which is a response to Alison Watt's painting of the same title), "Saxifrage", "Dream Family Holiday" and "Coronach". Not an easy set for the audience, perhaps, but it went down really well. It wasn't an easy set for nor for the other readers to follow either, but the reader who followed me directly was Rob A Mackenzie, whose set was completely different and superb, as I'd expect from him. (For me, his was the best set of the first half.)

There was just time in the break to chat to one or two friends and audience members but, unfortunately, I had to leave shortly after the second half began. However, I managed to hear Tom Duddy, who read quietly from his very fine pamphlet The Small Hours. For a good summary of the whole reading, see Rob's account. It was a shame not to be able to hear Michael Mackmin, whose Twenty-Three Poems is another strong chapbook, or Gregory Leadbetter, who I didn't get the chance to meet either, but at least I managed to sleep a bit on the train home!

All in all, it was a great trip. The reading buzzed with a livelier atmosphere than anything I've been at certainly in Edinburgh, possibly in Scotland full stop, and the audience was obviously attentive. In fact, the dozen copies of the sampler that Nell put out all sold, as did a good number of other pamphlets. Now, that just wouldn't happen in Edinburgh!

*Daft apostrophe but good hot porridge, which is just what a cold, wet traveller needed.

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