Friday, April 17, 2009

Next Gigs

Next week, I'll be returning to the Golden Hour with The Ambulance Box. I can't help but be flattered by what Ryan Van Winkle has put on the poster:

Click on the pic to see the details. It looks like a really good night. Hope to see some of you there.

The next gig after that is the Sotto Voce quiet slam at VoXboX on The Meadow Bar in Edinburgh, Thurs 7th May 2009 7.30pm.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Shrill Sound of Poetry Sales Descending into Sound Bites

Sales of poetry books are down

screamed the BBC news website on Wednesday last week, before exhorting us all:

but one way to reinvigorate this traditional art form could be to make it functional

and going on to suggest that we could re-engage the public with the art of poetry by turning the instructions on how to wire a plug into poetry. Give me a break. Not that I'm against using anything as the material for a poem, but I just can't help groan at this kind of stuff. I mean, poetry does have functions, for goodness sake.


In recent years, there has been a sharp fall in sales - from £12m spent in 2005 to £8.6m in 2008, according to Book Marketing Ltd.

How peculiar, then, that Jill Pattle, who runs The Linlithgow Bookshop, should be telling me on the platform at Waverley station today that their poetry sales have "risen exponentially" and she is now revamping the poetry shelf to make more space for poetry books. The last time I looked, the space that the shop devotes to poetry would probably, as a proportion of the shelving, equate to something like three whole floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in any of the Edinburgh Waterstones stores. That's an extremely rough estimate, but you get the picture; when was the last time those Waterstones stores had one such shelf full of poetry? Jill's poetry section is also at the front of the shop.

Likewise, when I was in Eyemouth last week, I was delighted to see that the wonderful wee bookshop Crossing the Bar had a small poetry shelf, with an unusual selection of books, including a beautiful Michael Longley book, Out of the Cold, illustrated by his daughter that I came that close to buying.

Is there a lesson here? What would happen to poetry book sales if, instead of hiding the poetry sections away at the back of the basement and shaving stock from it like a döner kebab, the big shops were to put it out front, with offers, staff recommendations and displays? Will we ever find out?

StAnza: Unlike the Duck

StAnza seems so long ago now that it’s almost hardly worth reporting any more on it, but there are a couple of things don’t want to slide into the dim and distant without comment.

First and foremost of those is Roddy Lumsden’s reading. I’ve known Roddy since I was a student, since before he published his first collection. That book — Yeah Yeah Yeah — was launched upstairs in The Waverley, a quirky wee pub a stone’s throw from the eponymous railway station. At StAnza, Roddy was launching Third Wish Wasted, his fifth collection, accompanied by the munching of some truly tasty pies.*

I’ve no hestitation in declaring Roddy’s reading the best I saw on the festival. The poetry was so good: a gleaming, distinctive sound; an enviable imaginative and formal range; wit, intelligence and fun. Nothing wasted. You can hear an excerpt from his performance on the relevant StAnza podcast. Neil Astley was also there with the Bloodaxe video camera, and you can see the result roughly halfway down this page on their site. Even better, you can read the book. Unlike the duck, it does not disappoint.

Speaking of Bloodaxe and films, I should also mention the extra showing of the taster for In Person. It was put on for those who missed tickets for the much more than sold out Duffy and Agbabi event. That reading wasn’t on my list anyway, and I think very few of the small audience for the film were refugees from it. However, I’m mightily glad to have had the opportunity to see the film, partly because I missed all the other ones on this year’s festival but mainly because it was well worth watching in its own right. I haven’t yet bought the In Person anthology, but it looks to be excellent value.

The main reason I didn’t get to any of the films was probably the fact that Rob A Mackenzie and I had a stall at the poets’ market, touting our and Alexander Hutchison’s Salt collections. That was also the reason I didn’t really get round the other stalls, but I thoroughly enjoyed chatting to James and Marianne of Kettilonia Press, who were beside us, as well as to the folk who came along to the stall. It was also good to meet Rachel Fox, albeit extremely briefly. If you have access to Facebook, you’ll find a shot of me at the stall among Robert Alan Jamieson’s photos.

StAnza was so much more than the sum of all these different parts and the many other meetings and encounters I haven’t mentioned. As Susan Mansfield says in her Scotsman write-up,

someone compared the festival to T in the Park. And while poetry is not quite the new rock'n'roll, year on year StAnza feels more like a festival.

*I now realise the Scotch pie can be a thing of beauty, not simply a dull companion to a bag of chips.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Despite holidaying in Eyemouth, on Thursday last week, I joined most of the other contributors* (inlcuding one of the translators) at the Italian Cultural Institute in Edinburgh to launch 5PX2: Five Italian Poets and Five Scottish Poets. The evening was slightly chaotic but enormous fun. A good-sized audience, too, for a Thursday in holiday time with competition from the Science Festival.

Everybody’s work was performed in the original and translation. I don’t speak Italian, but hearing the contributors from Italy — Dome Bulfaro, Tiziana Cera Rosco, Tiziano Fratus, Federico Italiano and Eliana Deborah Langiu — enriched my appreciation of the translations considerably. At the last minute, I was asked to read the English translations for Dome Bulfaro, which was fun. It felt a bit like playing by ear, as I tried to follow his pauses as much as possible. Of my own five in the book (which are all new), I read “The White Dot” and “Breathing is the Place to Start”. For me, the highlights of the other performances were Matthew Fitt and his translator alternating the pages of “Kate O’Shanter’s Tale” between Scots and Italian; Tiziana Cera Rosco’s reading, which electrified her poems; and Tiziano Fratus’s translation of my “Breathing is the Place to Start”, which sounded truly beautiful.

These things are always about meeting people as much as about the poems. Some good friendships were made and others strengthened — I hadn't sat down with Matthew Fitt for a long time, for instance. The Italians were great craic; I only wish we could have spent more time together, but thanks are due to the Institute for the meal that enabled us to spend the time together that we did.

With all the conversation we’re having around here about younger Scottish poets, it was particularly refreshing to connect with a bunch poets under 40 from outside the Scottish and British bubbles. For some reason, the sheer volume of good will and admiration that exists abroad for Scotland and Scottish writing always takes me by surprise. Perhaps there’s more of the Scottish cringe left in me than I thought. Let's hope the evening helped to kill that vestige off.

*Unfortunately, Claire Askew couldn’t make it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Holy Saturday Poem

This weekend's* Saturday poem in The Scotsman was the title poem from The Ambulance Box**. Great publicity for the collection! I'd heard several weeks ago that it was happening and knew the date but it only occurred to me in the middle of the week that it would be the Holy Saturday poem. An appropriate date, given the piece is about, as the paper neatly puts it,

"THE inextricable link between our suffering, our sense of celebration and our hopes for healing".

Many thanks to the good folk of the Scottish Poetry Library for choosing it.

*I'd have posted this yesterday but couldn't get on to Blogger for technical reasons.

**Please note that the layout isn't quite right in the paper, because the indentation hasn't come out at all. You'll just have to read it in the book for the full effect on the page.

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