Sunday, March 29, 2009

StAnza: Flight and Finesse

My first event on the Saturday at StAnza was Bill Manhire's masterclass: a one-off workshop with six writers selected from among a batch of submissions plus an audience. I was in the audience, not having submitted anything.

Manhire was warm and engaging while still being quite thorough. As he pointed out, there was no time to build up the trust that would be established in a long-running workshop group. Perhaps he'd be a tougher critic in that setting, but I get the sense he wouldn't have the bluntness of some well-known poets. Whether you think that's good or bad depends on what you look for in a critic of your poetry, I guess, but it suited the set-up.

We were all give copies of the poems, chosen by Manhire mid air over Singapo. The poet would read their piece, then Manhire would ask them about it and comment on it himself before opening the discussion to comments, suggestions and questions from the audience and the other selected participants. The atmosphere was friendly, the selection varied and the discussion intelligent.

For me, the best poem of the session was Matthew Hotham's "Forms of Flight". It was the most interesting formally and possessed a distinctive beauty. It had mystery, imagination and a quiet but insistent power. It simply said to me that Matthew had real talent, underpinned by skill and intelligence. Several people in the room obviously just didn't quite get what he was up to, and made suggestions that would have robbed the poem of mystery and richness. That's what you might expect of such an event, I suppose; I couldn't help but defend his piece.

After the masterclass, Rob Mackenzie, Ross Wilson and I had a brief chat with Matthew and Cynthia Chin, who also had a poem in the masterclass. They'd come over from the States specially for StAnza. So we're not just talking talent and skill here, but ocean-crossing commitment! Later, at the poets' market, Matthew bought The Ambulance Box and The Opposite of Cabbage and gave Rob and me each a copy of his chapbook, Early Art, published by Turtle Ink Press in 2006.

Having had a quick read through Early Art, I'm really looking forward to going back and savouring it. Everything I saw in "Forms of Flight" seems to be there in the pamphlet, though perhaps not quite as developed, given that it was published three years ago. Still, the talent is obvious. It's exciting to find a good writer at an early stage in his career, and I'm looking forward even more to seeing where Matthew takes his poetry in the future.

The Lithgae Launch

Summertime (officially), and the temperature's freezing. That's Scotland's wind chill for you. Otherwise, it's a glorious morning; a fitting follow-up to a good night at the Black Bitch, with Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage playing in the background. I lost count, but I think there were close to 30 people there. It was mostly Linlithgow folk, but James W Wood came through from Edinburgh, Alastair Findlay came over the hills from Bathgate and my good friends Alex and Jacqueline escaped the Netherlands just as the Tartan Army was invading. I read two sets, as follows:

  • Pedestrian
  • Improvisation for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time
  • The Meisure o a Nation
  • Cardiac
  • Hairst Day
  • Wandelvakanties Dicht bij Huis
  • The Invention of Zero
  • The Ambulance Box
  • Still
  • Waukrife
  • In Praise of Dust
  • Lullaby
  • Notes to Self

I sold 20 copies and chatted to various folk until 11ish -- midnightish BST -- then we headed home with a couple of boxes of chips.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Home and Away

Tomorrow night, I'm on home turf to launch The Ambulance Box in Linlithgow's Black Bitch Inn*. I'm expecting a smaller crowd than at the SPL, but looking forward to it just as much. The event kicks off at 8 pm. There's a bar and I'll be reading two 15-minute sets, though I've yet to decide what. Anyone is welcome.

On Thursday 9 April, I'll be at the Italian Cultural Institute in Edinburgh to celebrate the publication of 5PX2: Five Italian Poets and Five Scottish Poets. Details of the event are at the first link in this paragraph.

*The black bitch is the emblem of Linlithgow -- it's one of those faithful hound stories -- and, indeed, natives of the town, regardless of sex, are known as "black bitches". That's right: Scotland's current First Minister is a black bitch.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

StAnza: Absence, Presence and Accuracy

An oddity of this year's StAnza is that one of the most defining events for me was something I wasn't at. I refer, of course, to the poetry breakfast on the Friday, on the topic "Where are all the Scottish poets under 40?" I was dying to hear about it and asked one or two people on the Friday -- Colin Donati and Claire Askew, to be precise -- what had been said and what they'd thought of it.

However, it was Bill Manhire who really turned it into to the defining event. Towards the end of his masterclass on the Saturday morning, he referred to having been at an event "where people were saying there were no Scottish poets under 40". Ahem, 'scuse me. This is a Scottish poet under 40*.

After the masterclass, Rob A Mackenzie, Ross Wilson and I asked Manhire about his comment. He said that everyone on the panel for the breakfast seemed to be in agreement that there were no Scottish poets under 40. I was, as you can imagine, pretty exercised by this. However, I was also sure the poetry breakfast discussion was more nuanced than his memory of it. It was about the dearth but not absence of Scottish poets in my generation. In fact, the panel included a Scottish poet under 40: Christie Williamson (although Christie, being a Shetlander, would hesitate to define himself as Scottish). And I already knew from my conversations the previous night that Cheryl Follon and I had been mentioned in the discussion.

But if what came over to Bill Manhire was that we don't exist at all, what did others hear? You can hear a bit of the discussion for yourself on the Friday podcast, but all it does for me is leave me itching to hear the whole thing, which will be possible at some point in the coming weeks. I don't want to rehash the recent discussion on Rob's blog, but if anyone has anything to add to that, comment here by all means.

I'm particularly interested in where we go from here, and am glad to see that Colin Will is taking that tack on his blog. Maybe we need to start by making a greater effort to celebrate and encourage the poets we do have in my generation and below, whatever stage they're at, and Colin W's suggestion of a pamphlet series akin to the tall-lighthouse Pilot one is good in that respect.

I reckon we also need urgently to bolster and co-ordinate the opportunities for learning (and, therefore, teaching) poetry writing outside the university creative writing MScs. These courses are, of course, good in themselves, but they seem to have had the unintended consequence of narrowing opportunities beyond the academy. They simply aren't affordable to everybody, for one thing. Informal networks can be great, but have they shrunk too? It's great for individual writers to start independent workshops, but perhaps we can do more for one another by working together. Maybe we need to see whether a Scottish Poetry School or a Scottish curriculum for the Poetry School is possible.

Much as it might satisfy the dour and dreich side of our national character, let's not have our visitors going back to their countries telling everyone that Scottish poetry is doomed by a lack of young(er) blood**.

I'll post separately about the masterclass and other events from the Saturday at StAnza.

*The grey hair, folks, has been gradually colonising my scalp since I was 12.
**Happily, our friends in Turin obviously don't think that.

Monday, March 23, 2009

StAnza: Repetition, Surrealism and Hestiation

St Andrews was bathed in glorious sunshine this weekend past for StAnza, even if there was a bit of a chill to the wind. It certainly brought to mind Alastair Reid's "Scotland", famously burnt by the man himself two years ago. Reid was there in spirit, as you can hear in the podcast exerpt of Jay Parini's lecture (recommended). However, this year, Rabbie was doing the burning, what with it being the year of homecoming. Now that inevitably brings to mind Bill Herbert's "Rabbie, Rabbie Burning Bright". But I digress.

Anyway, I had a fantastic time at StAnza, despite the stressful lead-up on Friday trying to get my books to arrive at a time and place convenient for Saturday's poets' market. Somebody at the distributors -- not at Salt, I stress -- had cocked up, and the books I'd ordered in ample time had spent the whole week sitting in a warehouse in Eaglesham, I believe. Frantic Facebooking and phoning eventually sorted it out. Suffice to say that my box of The Ambulance Box made it to the Byre Theatre on Saturday morning after a Herculean effort of persuasion and, I imagine, plenty choice words from Tom and Jen at Salt. A huge thank you to them both.

As if that wasn't enough, when I got home from work I had no wallet. I was pushed for time as it was, but I had to phone up and cancel my cards and report it missing to the police. (I discover now that was in my desk at work. Numptie!) Still, without being a danger to myself or other drivers, I managed to check in to my B&B on the extreme southern edge of St Andrews and make it to the Byre with only moments to spare before Eleanor Livingstone walked onstage to introduce Bill Manhire and Simon Armitage.

I'd never heard Manhire before and the last time I'd heard Armitage was way back when I was a student. I particularly liked Manhire's "Hotel Emergencies" and "The Oral Tradition", which seemed to me to go places the other poems he read didn't touch. With Armitage, nothing stood out quite so strongly. The narrative poems he read sounded quite prosy, but I'd like to see how they read on the page. The more formal pieces came over better for me, though his use of repetition in some of them got too much. Sally Evans lampooned it quite sharply in the open mike. Armitage certainly overdid it, and I say that in full consciousness of how often I use repetition as a structural device.

There was quite a crowd in the Byre bar for the open mike, which followed the Manhire/Armitage event. As is often the case at these things, the bulk of the writing was comic verse, but there was plenty more serious stuff too. The standout readers for me were Allan Gillis, Rob A Mackenzie (whose choice of "Scotlands" was perfect on a number of levels), Kevin Cadwallader (whose line about the surrealist coppers I loved, though every time I saw him the rest of the weekend I forgot to tell him) and Judith Taylor. It was also good to hear Sorlil, who read much better than she seems to think, and Ross Wilson in particular. I read "Pedestrian", which went down well.

After the open mike, Rob, Ross and I headed pubward with Roddy Lumsden, Adam O'Riordan and a friend of Roddy's whose name, shamefully, continues to escape me. I fell into discussion with Adam and Ross about the SNP, devolution, independence, the West Lothian question and the lack of brilliant young left-wing politicians. That among other, more literary things, like. There were dark mutterings from StAnza student volunteers about a party of the fun kind, but the less said about that the better. Not that there is anything to say about it, because it didn't happen, due to misunderstandings, miscommunications and somebody deciding to stay in the student union. Just as well, really: it meant I could roll into bed by 2 am and be relatively compus mentus the next day.


The Ambulance Box is being reprinted! The final copies of the initial print run were delivered to me on Saturday (that's another story I'll tell in a post about StAnza) and a reprint of the hardback will be available in the next few weeks. We had discussed reprinting in paperback, but apparently an order for the hardback edition came in from Waterstones, which was the clincher. The paperback edition will be printed only once the hardbacks are completely out of stock.

Monday, March 16, 2009

StAnza Plans

A brief note on my plans for StAnza this year. I'll not manage to get through until the Friday evening. That means I'll miss the poetry breakfast on the relative absence of young Scottish poets. I have a ticket for the Bill Manhire and Simon Armitage reading, but I'm not certain I'll make it through in time for that. I'm staying overnight, though, so I'm planning to go to the open mike and hoping to get a spot to read from The Ambulance Box.

On the Saturday morning, I'm going to the masterclass, just as an audience member. After that, it's the launch of Roddy Lumsden's new collection, Third Wish Wasted, celebrated with a pie and a pint. Rob Mackenzie, Alexander Hutchison and I have booked a table at the poets market, so we'll be splitting the afternoon's shifts between us in a yet-to-be determined manner. However, our books should be for sale.

My final event of StAnza will be the Jay Parini and Jenny Bornholdt reading. I don't know their work at all, but that's the beauty of a poetry festival, isn't it.

Poet of the Month, Once Again!

We've reached the half-way point of March, which means I take over the mantle of Scottish Poetry Library poet of the month from Rob. This means that, until the end of the month, "The Invention of Zero" will greet you whenever the cyberwaves deposit you on the SPL's home page. Of course, once March has ended, you can still find the poems Rob and I chose in our respective entries in the Poets' A to Z.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Beefing up the Future

I'd been exercised by the second half of this all day, and then I see that not only has Rob Mackenzie blogged about it already, but Roddy Lumsden has replied in the comments section.

Briefly, Roddy is baffled by the sparse number of established Scottish poets in my generation: those born in the 1970s and 1980s. He's not the only person to feel the dearth: Bill Herbert explores it briefly in the endorsement he did for The Ambulance Box (which you can read in full at the link) and Donny O'Rourke alluded to it when he spoke to Rob and me at Mirrorball. Heck, I've felt it over the past decade, when I think about it. And during my time at Edinburgh uni, when Roddy was on the cusp of publishing his first collection, there were precious few other Scots involved in student poetry. I come across none of them now in the poetry world.

Perhaps what we need(ed) is more good poets teaching, not in the academic creative writing courses, but in open access, informal or evening class-style courses. More of what Roddy does in London (please move back here, Mr Lumsden!) and what others have been doing through Mirrorball's mentoring scheme, the like of which doesn't exist elsewhere in the central belt, to my knowledge. More to bust us out of our wee lonesome bubbles.

There's no Poetry School up here. Looks like the furthest north they've got is Newcastle. Try searching their courses on "Scotland" (which is an option) and you get:

No courses match your search criteria. Try searching again with fewer stipulations.

Thanks. Does the existence of the option mean they're thinking of breaking into Scotland? I suppose the georgaphy is less of an issue now with internet courses becoming available, but I guess not everybody will teach or take those. Maybe we just need to get on and do something about it up here ourselves. What and how I'm not sure. Suggestions, anyone?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Into Spender's Canyon

What can I say about Wednesday night's launch of The Ambulance Box and The Opposite of Cabbage at the Scottish Poetry Library that isn't already in the reports by Peggy at the SPL (who does the name dropping for us), Colin Will and Rob himself?

Rob is right to say it couldn't have gone any better. It was a fantastic, really celebratory atmosphere. The library was packed. Apparently, we had 67 bodies through the door. (No wonder there were folk standing on the stairs!) When the library's reader development officer Lilias Fraser said there'd been concerns about the mezzanine floor's ability to take the weight, I didn't think she was being serious but with numbers like that ...

Anyway, the launch was scheduled to begin at 7 pm. From about 6.55, I was stuck at the punters' side of the librarians' desk signing books for about half an hour. I had to make an effort to break off and slip into the lift (there was little hope of getting easily up the stairs) and up to the mezzanine, where Rob and I read.

Rob and I had agreed that whoever kicked off in Glasgow last week would go second this week, so I read first. Here's my set list:
  1. "Pedestrian"
  2. "Improvisation for the Angel who Announces the End of Time"
  3. "The Meisure o a Nation"
  4. "The Ambulance Box"
  5. "The Invention of Zero"
  6. "Lullaby"
  7. "Dream Family Holiday"
  8. "Notes to Self"

and a picture of me reading said set, taken by my friend and colleague, Diarmid Mogg:

Rob read another great set (you can see his set list at his post). His is a fresh, distinctive, intelligent and sophisticated voice. It's a huge pleasure to read alongside him. I certainly hope people in the poetry world and wider reading public sit up and take notice of it. They should.

Once we'd read, the two of us sat for ages at the table signing more books and chatting to people. Here's another photo -- a cracking shot; the same one as is on the SPL blog -- by Diarmid by way of illustration:

Afterwards, Rob and Katy Evans-Bush, who had come all the way up from London for the event, joined me and members of my family at Empires Turkish Cafe for a meal. The mezze, main courses, Turkish coffee and company were all excellent. Empires is definitely to be recommended. The coffee didn't even keep me awake when I finally stumbled home off the last train back to Linlithgow.

I really must repeat my thanks to the SPL staff for all their hard work and more. They set everything up: book table, wine table, crisps and seating. They poured the wine and dealt with the money. They looked after not only our bags but Katy's. They provided those little sticky strips that make for much less fumbling about the book when you're reading (God bless you, Lilias!). They coralled and herded the guests when needed and Lilias introduced the reading. They cleared up and cashed up. And they did the whole lot with smiles, warmth and enthusiasm.

And that post title? Well, my friends Kenny and Jane who came along gave me a card with this quotation from Spender on the front:

A modern poet launching forth his slim volume today is like a person dropping a feather over the edge of the Grand Canyon and then waiting for the echo.

Inside, it simply says:


Thursday, March 12, 2009

SPL Launch: A Preliminary Post

Last night's launch at the SPL was a huge success. We ran out of seating and wine glasses though not wine, I'm glad to say. Or books, I'm equally glad to say, despite the goodly number sold.

Really, though, I'm far too tired to give you a proper account tonight. I had an unavoidably a full -- in fact, long -- day at the office today on the back of my suitably latish night yestreen and my wrists wouldn't thank me for it even if my brain could put a proper post together. Normal service will resume after recovery, which will involve a glass of wine and at least one night's sleep. I'll leave you with links to Peggy's post and Colin's comments.

Oh, and a set list:
  1. "Pedestrian"
  2. "Improvisation for the Angel who Announces the End of Time"
  3. "The Meisure o a Nation"
  4. "The Ambulance Box"
  5. "The Invention of Zero"
  6. "Lullaby"
  7. "Dream Family Holiday"
  8. "Notes to Self"
Oh, and a picture of me reading said set, taken by my friend and colleague, Diarmid Mogg:

Monday, March 09, 2009

Anon, but not anonymous

Several weeks back, Rob A Mackenzie and I struggled through snow to the HQ of Anon magazine, now edited by Colin Fraser and Peggy Hughes, to record for the Anon podcast. You can now hear us discuss our magazine publishing history, the whys and joys of blogging, and the parlous poetry infrastructure of the best small country in the world, interspersed with each of us reading two poems from our books. The first podcast, with the magazine's founding editor Mike Stocks, is also available. Happy listening.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

SPLaunching and SPLogging

After the success of Thursday's Mirrorball launch, I'm very much looking forward to the launch for Rob A Mackenzie's book and mine on Wednesday at the Scottish Poetry Library. It'll be a bigger affair than Mirrorball, I suspect. There'll be wine and crisps (oooh, the extravagence!), and both of us will read. I've not yet decided how much overlap there'll be between the poems I read on Thursday and those I'll read on Wednesday, but it won't be an identical set. The books will be on sale as well, of course.

Speaking of the SPL, you might want to check out its new blog, Our sweet old etcetera…. This adds a lighter, more informal side to the Library's burgeoning web presence (which includes not only the main site but the Reading Room) and is a welcome addition to the Scottish poetry blogosphere.


Thursday's reading at St Mungo's Mirrorball with Rob A Mackenzie and performance poet Robin Cairns was a good night. As usual, Mr Mackenzie has got in ahead of me and blogged about it already. As he says, it was a varied evening but the audience was happy to switch mood and style along with each reader. It was a decent-sized crowd too.

Rob was up first (you can find his set list at his post), reading from The Opposite of Cabbage for the first time. For literary poets like Rob and me, I think there's a greater degree of confidence that comes with holding your book in your hand in front of an audience. Rob and I have seen each other's books in varying states of manuscript, but the authority of the printed and bound article allows us to sit back and enjoy the poems. It gives them a stamp of finality that's obviously lacking in a draft. That effect holds for the live reading, I think. Seeing how well the audience reacted to Rob's work simply served to reinforce its wit, sophistication, intelligence and passion; its mix of irony, cynicism and compassion; it's freshness and quality.

Robin Cairns, as is often the case with performance poets, performed all his work from memory. It's an impressive skill, especially given that we're not talking about short lyrics here. He's a highly confident performer and certainly gets the audience laughing. For me, though, his best piece was a serious one: an accomplished ballad exploring how music breaks down barriers between individuals. Robin was launching his first pamphlet.

I came last, setting a different tone for the end of the evening with The Ambulance Box. Here's what I read:

  1. "The Ambulance Box"
  2. "Cardiac"
  3. "To Bake the Bread"
  4. "The Meisure o a Nation"
  5. "The Invention of Zero"
  6. "45 Minutes"
  7. "Waukrife"
  8. "Lullaby"
  9. "Notes to Self"
Quite a varied bunch, but moving into gradually more direct poems about my son's death in its second half. It was the first time I've opened a set with the title poem, which seemed to work fine in pole position. I very much enjoyed having such an attentive and appreciative audience. Several people were clearly listening carefully. The applause and post-reading comments were warm, and I sold a decent number of books too.

After the gig, Rob and I wound up in the CCA Bar for a pint with one of my oldest mates and his friend the visual/minimalist poet Stephen Nelson, whom I'd met previously at the Mitchell Library. A fine end to a really good night.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Nuclear Submarines

As a further celebration of the Appointed Day for Rob A Mackenzie and me, here's a poem from Rob's collection, The Opposite of Cabbage, originally published in Seam:

Nuclear Submarines

One day they will surely betray me.
For now, they seem content to drowse

resolutely without wit or purpose
like autistic sharks ballooning

through seaweed, rock and sand
of fish cities deep in blackout.

While I’m trying to trust, one breaks
the Gareloch’s surface and fixes

its stunned gaze on the mirrored sky.
Things are as they should be –

the clouds, the flotsam, the stranger
peering from the shore with my face.

The second it drops, I no longer exist.
It has no memory, no plans.

The water rises, the sky falls,
and I am as blue is to the fish.

Rob is also currently poet of the month on the Scottish Poetry Library's website, where you can find his poem "Glory Box". I'll replace him there about half way through the month.

The Ambulance Box

The day has come! Today, 1 March 2009, is the official publication date for The Ambulance Box and Rob A Mackenzie's marvellous book, The Opposite of Cabbage. To celebrate, here's the title poem from my collection:

The Ambulance Box

No one can swear how it fell
into our hands. No one

can fathom its substance or build.
It mystifies all

who think of themselves as whole
but those of us huddled

round our various wounds
are at home with the box

and all it contains.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxHear us,
shoulder to shoulder in the dusk,

celebrate life — sprained and splinted
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxset to heal

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