Monday, April 28, 2008

Rocks, Rags and Russian Dolls

Well, it was a trimmed-back audience last night at the Shore Poets. I don't know whether it was the Grangemouth strike that kept people away, but it can't have been the weather unless everyone had fallen asleep in the sun. Whatever, we were maybe around 20 down on the usual number, but it was a good night nonetheless, if I do say so myself.

Julie Sheridan was the first reader. She read very well indeed, though her voice didn't come over best through the mike for some reason. Some of her work seemed to me to be trying too hard, but there was a lot of promise there and one poem, "Russian Dolls", sounded spot on.

I read the second, Shore poet slot; my last time in the role. In spite of recovering from a tummy bug that had laid me low Thursday and Friday, I felt I read well, and reactions seemed to confirm that. The set was a mix of brand new work and poems I've read before, including the title poem from Tonguefire.

The evening's headliner was Colin Will, blogger, editor and StAnza chair as well as poet. Colin read very well, his looser, more prosaic writing ensuring that we had three very different voices last night. I have to confess, that style of poetry isn't generally what does it for me, but I thought Colin's piece about James Hutton, the father of geology, was superb. The other pieces of his I found most effective were his haiku and haiku-like poems, where the discipline of the short lines and focused, concrete images reigned in the looser approach.

Last night's music was fantastic. It was a real treat to have a mix of blues, rag, folk and jazz from a guitarist as skilled as Callum More. We have some excellent songwriters along to Shore Poets, but fine instrumentalists like Callum provide perhaps the best foil to an evening of words.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Troubadour Poems: Rob A Mackenzie

Rob A Mackenzie is well known in the literary blogosphere as the man behind the popular poetry blog Surroundings. His pamphlet, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance in 2005.

Light Storms from a Dark Country

You bend sleetward down grey alleyways,
xxin search of finesse to straighten out
the tangle of the last spat. The sky’s
xxwatery glaze reminds you of that night
you split. A shock of white chrysanthemums
xxdroops from an abandoned briefcase
on the kerb. They shatter in the slipstream
xxof a truck. You count the Christmas trees
that line the tinselled storefront. They flicker
xxpink, blue and saffron like a funeral
in Hollywood. You search for living flowers,
xxas a peace offering, but when you steal
the twisted stems dumped at the cenotaph
xxdays before, you know it must be over.
Freak lightning tears its jack-knife
xxthrough the sky. You swerve under cover
with other hunched men, all asking what
xxflares in love, why it turns to smoke,
why by any other slant of light
xxyou never move forward, never back.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Shore Poets Swansong

How readings can creep up on you! It's only a few days until this month's Shore Poets, where I'll be reading alongside Colin Will and Julie Sheridan, with music provided by blues/folk/fingerpicking guitarist Callum More. I'm stepping down from the group after June, so this will be my last appearance as a Shore poet. It has been a privilege to be part of Shore Poets, but it's time for me to move on and concentrate a bit more on my own writing.

Speaking of both Shore Poets and my own writing, my latest publication came through the door on Monday: A new orkney anthology, edited by Pam Beasant, the inaugural and outgoing George Mackay Brown Writing Fellow, includes three poems of mine. I haven't had a chance to delve into the contents yet, but it's a beautifully produced volume with contributions from Andrew Motion, the Shore poets who participated in the Shore to Shore exchange and a large range of Orkney-based writers, from the experienced to those seeing their work in print for the first time.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Troubadour Poems: Michael Mackmin

I'm delighted to begin this series of poems with the following nocturne from Michael Mackmin, who is best known as the editor of that beautifully produced magazine, The Rialto. HappenStance published his modestly titled pamphlet Twenty-Three Poems in 2006.

Midnight Garden

As the light moves from deepest blue to black
among the last outlines of vines and roses the white
planes of the painted table top and seats of chairs
slide into that mist where sight and insight wait
the last green flare, phenomenal illumination,
and eyes begin to blur, catching in corners at
the ghosts of rats, auras of uncertainties,
as if and where the lamp of Vichy shines
and the worn cards in their grey gloss fix in the hands.

And then the night: the labouring bee is frozen
on the stem of thyme, the recollections of geranium,
the different reds and white, flitting to those ancient
landscapes of the heart, the voices of sheep
hooves banging on soft stone, all gone dark, obscure,
reliant on memory - the eyes’ pulse
pulling at afterglow, the least glitter, seeing
the sound of the dead wind the tired dry
iron wheels on iron rails, wheels on rails, rails.

HappenStance Troubadours

Over the weeks runing up to the HappenStance reading at the Troubadour, I'll be posting a poem by each of the poets appearing. The full line-up is listed alphabetically by surname below. Poems will appear in a different order and the list will link to the poems as they are posted.

Martin Cook
Tom Duddy
Eleanor Livingstone
Greg Leadbetter
Rob Mackenzie
Michael Mackmin
Helena Nelson
Andrew Philip
DA Prince

Monday, April 14, 2008

Great Grog Again

Last night, though tired out after a busy day that included helping our neighbour to rebuild the fence along our boundary, I headed into Edinburgh for the third Poetry at the Great Grog event.

Elizabeth Gold kicked off. The work she read jumped off from anecdotes, snatches of overheard conversation and tabloid headlines, but took us to unexpected places. She had a cat poem, but please do not run for cover: it was a poem inspired by seeing a cat posing for a portrait of a dog (where else but Hollywood?), written very wittily in the voice of the cat. Really, it was about celebrity, dreams and reality.

Second up was fellow HappenStancer, Margaret Christie. Margaret's wonderfully quirky and individual work is laden with musical references and metaphors and often shifts from serious to hilarious and back again without missing a beat. The poem that impressed itself on me the most was her "Eurydice on Skye", a take on the Orpheus myth from Eurydice's point of view and a sharp observation of the relationship tensions that can arise on a lengthy walk!

Joy Hendry of Chapman fame followed Margaret. Joy is rarely to be heard reading her own work -- I think I've heard her only once before, at some Scottish Poetry Library event or other -- and, indeed, the editor's passion that obviously drives her led her to read not only her own work but a few poems from this book. However, it's her work and performance I want to talk about. Joy has suffered very ill health over the past several years, so it was great to see her looking vibrant and well. She treated us to a lively and varied set of poems in Scots and English, including a Scots translation of the quartet "In a contemplative fashion" from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers and a memorable defence of women priests in the Episcopal church.

The last and main reader of the evening was Tom Pow. More than anyone else, Tom had to contend with the music and noise from the bar area -- not a problem on previous Great Grog evenings -- but he made a great job of it, reading mostly from his new Salt collection, Dear Alice--Narratives of Madness. The book is based on case notes from the 19th century Crichton lunatic asylum near Dumfries; it looks an interesting read. The asylum is now the university campus where Tom teaches; he quipped that the only problem encountered in converting a lunatic asylum into a university was the lack of parking. (One of the New Voices events I did for the SPL took place there; there's a report here.)

All in all, it was another fine night at the Great Grog, a unique combination of voices I don't think we'd have heard anywhere else. The audience was a healthier size than in February, perhaps partly because the weather was better, but maybe also because the events are establishing themselves. I spent most of the breaks chatting to artist and pamphlet poet Dorothy Lawrenson, who was along for the first time, as well as to Rob himself, and ended up getting a lift home from Sally Evans. Rob has done an incredible job in sustaining the momentum across the three events so far, and June's gig -- with Kapka Kassabova, Mike Stocks, Eleanor Livingstone and Jim Carruth -- looks to continue the quality and distinctive mix.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

There is Somebody Out There

We seem to be having a blog-focused day here: in a typically thoughtful post on the hard work and vageries of literary blogging, Jim Murdoch has very kindly highlighted Tonguefire -- specifically the Reasoning Rhyme series -- among a small handful of lit blogs of note. He has succeeded in adding considerably and gloriously to my information anxiety with the other blogs he mentions, none of which I'd come across and all of which look to be fascinating reading. They are Dragoncave, World Class Poetry Blog, Slow Reading, and Geof Huth. Jim provides a little blurb about each, along with links to the post streams he's highlighting. The links above will take you directly to the sites, but make sure you drop by Jim's post first.

One of the issues Jim touches on in the body of his piece is the pressure many bloggers feel to post daily so as to acquire and keep a readership -- or clickership, to use the more accurate neologism he employs. Readers of this blog will know I don't manage anything like that. I simply don't have the time, energy or wealth of ideas. A post of any significance generally takes time to conceive and write, so only the quickest brains and fingers could produce a daily blog of genuine worth and quality. That's part of Jim's drift. Of course, I'd like more people to read what I post here, but I'm much more interested in comments and discussion than raw figures -- I never was that sold on arithmetic -- so please contribute!

Baroque Flittin

Katy Evans-Bush, aka Ms Baroque, has moved her fine blog, Baroque in Hackney, from Blogger to Wordpress. I'll update the link in the sidebar. She's a stylish and intelligent blogger so it's well worth following her flit.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Elmar Kuiper, one of this year's StAnza readers, videoed various other festival participants reading around St Andrews. There's a selection on the StAnza Facebook pages and the whole lot is on Kuiper's YouTube pages. I particularly like the intense focus of this one, Brian Turner reading the title poem from his collection Here, Bullet:

What's New on Tonguefire