Friday, February 29, 2008

Three-Michelin-Star Tele

I've only ever got hooked on two--ahem--reality TV shows: Musicality and Masterchef. Both, of course, are basically talent shows with a reality TV element injected into them. (Perhaps we could call them soft reality TV rather than the hard reality [sic] TV of, say, Big Brother. Who I'm not watching. Ever. Sorry.) Both also lack the glitz, pizzazz and superhype of other talent shows such as The Zzzzz Factor, Any Idea Will Do or How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Ratings?. Instead of hype, the focus in the two Ms is/was on unadorned talent, hard work and, in the case of Masterchef certainly, sheer creativity.

Another crucial element both programmes--certainly in the latter stages of the competitions--is the narrative arc of the contestants' development. The lack of glamour and the narrative focus together give the impression of following a real personal emotional and experiential journey, as opposed to observing the manufacture of another identical pop unit for market consumption. That even goes for Musicality, where the ultimate prize was to perform in a West End show. That narrative arc is what hooked me. That and, in the case of Masterchef, the madcap, prodigious brilliance and innovation of Emily's dishes.

Another thing: in one sense, Masterchef shouldn't work. The crux and climax of a programme is the contestants' cooking, which only the judges are able to assess. The viewer can assess presentation, of course, but not flavour, seasoning, consistency or texture. That's the opposite of Musicality or the phone-in voting contests, where everyone has seen and heard the contestants' performances and everyone has an opinion on them.

But perhaps that's the genius of Masterchef as reality TV: it forces the viewer to imaginge what the dishes must taste like. In the other shows, the viewer's imagination is uncalled-for. In fact, it's cancelled out, particularly by the higher-budget, glitz and glamour end of the genre. Masterchef therefore has soul in a way that not even Musicality, for all its emotional journey, could manage. Perhaps that's why I finished watching the grand final last night and felt that drive to write returning with fresh vigour.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Whaur Extremes Meet?

I know this is a bit behind the times, but there's an interesting post on "official verse culture" over at Eyewear, on the back of the result of the TS Eliot Prize. One wonders whether Edwin Morgan--one of those whom Todd Swift and other bloggers (well, Rob Mackenzie at least) hoped would win those laurels--didn't get the prize partly because he's always sat slightly athwart that culture. I've said this kind of thing before, but it seems to me that ability to straddle the mainstream and experimental is something that Scottish poets are particularly good at. I have no idea whether the proportion of poets from Scotland to whom that applies is any greater than that among the ranks of our English and other Anglophone brother and sister poets but, if it isn't, we certainly seem more readily able to recognise and celebrate them. Perhaps it's a function of size: oh, we can be a gey carnaptious lot, but sometimes we just stick together.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Oscars? Who Needs the Oscars?!

It was a packed house and a night of surprises. A night to remember, even if it wasn't a night of tears. No, I'm not talking about that minor award ceremony in Holywood. I mean the Shore Poets reading last night. The crowds turned out--well, the Mai Thai was crowded--to hear Jacob Polley, Debbie Cannon and Diana Hendry and for the first Mark Ogle Memorial Poem, from Angus Peter Campbell. It was lovely to have a strong contingent from Mark's family there--his widow and daughter with their partners and his twin sisters--as well as several of Mark's old friends.

Angus Peter may have missed out on the Oscars and we may not have been able to compete with Tinseltown on glitz, red carpets and sartorial swish, but the lack was made up in depth and quality of speech. It was one of those nights when everything fitted together as neatly as if it had all been planned in detail. Debbie Cannon kicked off with a good set well read. For me, her first poem--a strong sonnet about seeing her mother's face in the mirror--had the most impact. (You can read it here. The closing couplet is what makes the poem stand out.) It set the theme for most of her set and, in a way, most of the evening.

Diana Hendry continued the family theme all through her set of typically sharp, witty poems form her forthcoming new collection. Jacob Polley started off in family vein with "Smoke" from his first collection, The Brink, but, with poems from his latest book, soon introduced the second theme of the evening: rain. There were smiles among those of us who knew exactly what was following his set. Diana and Jacob share another link: friendship with the late William Scammell. Diana read a poem for Scammell, while Jacob read one of Scammell's poems.

The reading culminated in the Mark Ogle Memorial Poem. It's a new feature of Shore Poets life but a celebration of one of the group's earliest members. In fact, as founder-member Brian Johnstone said, it was Mark joining him and Morelle Smith that made Shore Poets a group as such. And my! Haven't we grown! Brian's tribute to Mark set the tone of celebration. Mark's widow, Deborah Nelken (who bakes the famous Shore Poets lemon cake) spoke about how much the inauguration of the memorial poem means to Mark's family and his daughter Lizzie presented Angus Peter with the trophy that comes with the commission. It's a beautiful, simple carving of a boat, representing Mark's family connection with the sea and his conviction that life is a journey. Into the top is carved a line of Mark's: "a secret ballast/ steadied your spirit".

Angus Peter then read. He had been asked to respond to a poem of Mark's--"English Rain", which you can read here (third poem down)--and had written three poems, one in English as a direct response and two in Gaelic as slightly more oblique responses. He read the latter two first, before reading Mark's poem and his direct response,"Our Rain", beautifully and movingly. I'll post a link to "Our Rain" once it's been published on the Shore Poets website.

Music for the evening was provided by our very own Alison Reeves on the fiddle. Alison played three sets of three tunes, a lively mix of Irish and Scottish music. She wrapped up the evening by bringing us full circle to family with tunes she'd written for her parents' 50th birthdays. A suitably celebratory note to round off a night of magical connections.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Mark Ogle Memorial Poem

Besides the usual fine fare at Shore Poets this Sunday, with Jacob Polley, Diana Hendry and Debbie Cannon, there'll be something extra special: acclaimed Gaelic poet and novelist Angus Peter Campbell will launch the Mark Ogle Memorial Poem.

Angus Peter will read Mark Ogle’s poem “English Rain” and “Our Rain”, the poem he has written as a response.

Mark Ogle (1948–1999) was one of the earliest members of Shore Poets and one of the first to read at the group’s original venue, the Shore Gallery in Leith. A poet of great depth and sensitivity, his reading so impressed the founders that they invited him to become the third Shore Poet.

Always closely involved in the running of the group, Mark played a considerable part in organising the appearances of Norman MacCaig and Edwin Morgan at the 369 Gallery. Mark continued this level of involvement even once the group had been expanded and gave many memorable readings at all Shore Poets venues.

It was with particular sadness that group members heard of his final illness and subsequent death, at the early age of 50, in February 1999. A Memory of Fields—a selection of his poems edited by Brian Johnstone and Hugh Dailly of Shore Poets, in consultation with Mark’s wife Deborah Nelken, with an introduction by Stewart Conn—was published by Akros in 2000.

In 2007, Mark's family and Shore Poets decided to commission a poem annually as a memorial to him. The commission is offered to the poet among the previous year’s Shore Poets readers whom we feel is most in tune with Mark’s sensibilities.

The poet is asked to respond to a poem of Mark’s, chosen by his family, and receives a fee of £500, plus a year’s possession of the Mark Ogle Memorial Poem trophy. The fee and trophy are presented and the poems read at the Shore Poets event in February, the month in which Mark died.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Note on Joy and Sorrow

"The joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:10)

It's a verse often used in certain quarters, under the rubric of encouragement, to bludgeon the hurting for a failure to demonstrate happiness in pain. No thought given to the harm this misapplication does or what it implies, namely that God is not to be found in the pit. Not only is this scriptural illiteracy ("De profundis", anyone?), but it seems to me tantamount to a denial of the incarnation.

No thought is given either to what "the joy of the Lord" might be beyond grinning through grief. But we have here a possessive--"the joy of the Lord"--therefore, it's God's joy, not the believer's joy in him, that is the source of strength. What is God's joy? Perhaps it is the ceaseless adoration of each person of the Trinity by the others, the joy that Rowan Williams explores in relation to Rublev's icon of the hospitality of Abraham, also known as the Old Testament Trinity. We glimpse it at Jesus's baptism and again at the transfiguration in the voice of the Father coming out of the cloud. God's joy breaking through into a broken and fallen world, a world of sorrow and grief. Joy in the Man of Sorrows. That joy is in the background of Jesus howl from the Cross, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?", perhaps (depending on how you view it) the only time when this ceaseless adoration was interrupted.

This is not, is never, a joy that ignores, denies or glosses over suffering. It is a joy that enters pain and grief, comes alongside it and redeems it because the suffering of the Man of Sorrows, the Son of Joy, is eternally part of the life of the Trinity. ("Those wounds, yet visible above ... .") Holding joy in one hand and and grief in the other, this is the life the Body of Christ is meant to model to its members and to the rest of the world. Which is why lament and worship should always be found under the one spire.

Great Grog in the Future

Rob Mackenzie has posted a list of forthcoming readings at the Great Grog. It's an interesting and exciting line-up. I'm slated to reappear in February next year, along with the always-entertaining Tim Turnbull, Andrew Shields (who I'm looking forward to meeting) and AN Other. Before that, the only reading in the diary is the April Shore Poets slot. But if anyone reading this would like to book me ...

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Great Grog: Where were you all?

If you're one of those people who thought about going to the reading at the Great Grog last night but decided to stay in and watch, oh I don't know, the Antiques Roadshow, kick yourself. No: harder. Colin Will and Rob Mackenzie have already blogged on the night, so I won't go on at length, but I can't help adding my enthusiasm. It was an excellent reading, even though the audience was meagre. If Rob keeps up this standard of event (and I see no reason to doubt he will), the Great Grog will establish itself as one of the places to read and be read to in Scotland.

It's invidious to single anyone out on such an evening, but it was particularly good to hear and meet Cheryl Follon. She was a Scottish Poetry Library new voice at the same time as me but our paths had never actually crossed because I missed her reading at the Shore Poets a couple of years back. She's a tremendous reader--strong, feisty, dramatic but not overly performancy--and a fun, energetic individual.

I bought Cheryl's book All Your Talk and Alexander Hutchinson's Scales Dog. Given that I'm on a tight budget, that says something. Sandy is one of those Scottish poets who, like the late Gael Turnbull, can step from something experimental into something deftly formal with delightful ease. Plus he sings.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Scottish Book Trust has remodelled its entire website, including its online writers register. My page in the register is here. There are a few links to be inserted here and there, but overall the site looks pretty good. The register entries give a lot more information than previously. That makes them considerably more work for us writers, but I'm hoping its worth it in the long run.

What's New on Tonguefire