HomeJust back from poems and a picnic in the Poetry Garden, St Andrew Square. A dozen of us gathered to hear poems about home, as part of Refugee Week; thankfully, the rain held off till the readings were over. Ryan hosted proceedings, and read a poem in which he imagines what his family might be up to in sunny Connecticut whilst he endures another tepid Scottish summer.

Then Iyad Hayatleh read two of his own poems, and one by Mahmoud Darwish, in Arabic and in English. A Palestinian born in a Syrian refugee camp, Iyad has never been to Palestine: home, he says, has been the most controversial word in his life.

One of the cherry trees in the Poetry Garden had been decorated for the occasion with hand-written poems composed by members of The Welcoming project, and we decided to be pleased that, between Monday and today, some of the poems had been ‘liberated’.  No doubt they’re giving great pleasure to their new owners.

So much for the poems; what about the picnic? Snacks came courtesy of Leith’s World Kitchen – who needs cake when there’s lentil dumplings?

~ Jane

Listen with… SPL

June 17, 2009

We’ve just bidden farewell to our small but perfectly formed afternoon group. 4 people came to Listen With… SPL for Jammie Dodgers and tea, with Ryan and Dave reading for them. Brilliantly though, they all felt moved to join in too. Cleodie recited Thomas Hardy from memory and Nella read Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ (spine tingling, we agreed, despite the rigours of 6th form). Jenny read U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas’ and Jo Shapcott’s letter to her mother-in-law on Shetland and Scott recited a poem which we debated may have been Walter de la Mare (on the basis of ‘ye horses’), which always comes to mind when driving at night. Peggy didn’t read as she has a voice for ballet, but the dulcet tones of Dave and Ryan were roundly applauded, with Dave reading countrymen Muldoon and MacNeice, and Ryan Stewart Conn (on request) and Kit Wright.

So despite the rain and fear that no-one would come, a most pleasant and diverting afternoon was had by all, and we agreed to do it again soon.

Iain MacIntoshWe’re 25 this year. To mark the occasion and our Patrick Geddes by-line, we asked 25 friends and supporters and artists linked to the library to design a leaf for us. Our web designer Mary has created a fab slideshow of their contributions. You’ll find a diverse mix in there, from Alexander McCall Smith‘s sketch to Norman McBeath‘s photo. We hope you’ll enjoy them.

Great photo of Ryan and stall, nicked from Aiko! Better late than never, and delayed only by stop the press Jaffagate (and by the way we loved your poems Lorrainebow and David! The Jaffa Cake canon explodes…) I asked Ryan to write a bit about his experience of the Meadows Fest and he did…

Hello Sweet Old Readers. Despite the wind and rain on Saturday 6 June,  we had a sweet old afternoon handing out our favourite poems. The Poetry Army was in full effect and the screen printing was great.

One highlight was this screen-printed card.

rock engine trembling will shatter against
destroyed buildings
your savings lay undone
sharp and willing

We were nestled in between the Forest / Police Box stage and the ever-popular beer tent. Loads of people came and we gave away dozens of the Edwin Morgan Cards which I love. I made everyone who even looked at us take a card which read: “Nothing is Not Giving Messages.” Which is fast becoming my favourite quoteable quote.

Poems by Leonard Cohen about kites, poems by Bukowski about drinking and a poem by Aaron Smith about Brad Pitt proved most popular.

Favourite quote from a punter — “Poetry. That’s for like, intellectuals, isn’t it?” You be the judge.

Silver haired, red necklace fans

Silver haired, red necklace fans

We’ve heard two transatlantic voices in the SPL this week – not counting visitors: the poets Linda Gregerson and Amanda Lichtenstein, both from the Mid-West. Poetry news from the USA reaches us faintly – or rather, randomly, so were all the more grateful to encounter new poets and hear their poetic accents.

Linda came to us through a longstanding friendship with John Burnside, and their joint reading was a reflective joy. She once said that the poetry she tries to write has ‘maximum consequence per cubic inch’ and the audience thought it did. Amanda is in Edinburgh on an exchange with Elspeth Murray, who was in Chicago in March: both have been working with schools as teaching artists (Elspeth loves this description of her role) shadowing each other. In collaboration with the Scottish Book Trust, we had a wee reception for them last week, in which we heard Scottish pupils’ poems on the fate of frogs (not happy) as well as Amanda’s unpacking of the meaning of arrivals and departures: two young-silver-haired poets with stunning red necklaces bringing wonder and laughter to the SPL on a light northern night.

~ Robyn

Jaffa scandal at SPL

June 12, 2009


'They just don't taste quite right' - Dave Coates, 23 (above)

There was a mild disturbance among the employees at the Scottish Poetry Library today when librarian Julie Johnstone brought strawberry Jaffa cakes in for afternoon tea. Dave Coates (23, pictured) was the first to try the rogue cake/biscuit variant. He declared them to ‘not blend as well as Jaffa originals’ saying ‘they taste a bit funny’. Julie, didn’t like them at all, agreeing with Jane that they tasted like the horrible Quality Streets left over on Boxing Day that nobody likes but everybody eats.

‘The taste was just not right; not what you’d expect of a Jaffa, more like Turkish Delight’, one spokesperson, who wishes to remain nameless, stated. A commenter on Facebook told Our Sweet Old Etc, via a Facebook comment, that ‘as the custodians of language, poets should strenuously resist this insidious travesty’ [making a mockery of the name Jaffa by flavouring it with strawberry]. Lizzie MacGregor was unavailable for comment, though one witness claims she ate two. The investigation continues.

Fact Box

The largest strawberry ever grown weighed 8.17 ounces, that’s 231g.
Strawberries are the only fruit with seeds on the outside
The word strawberry comes from Old English words ‘Steowberie’ or ‘Streowbelige’.
There are no known poems written about Jaffa cakes.

Happenings 9…

June 12, 2009

SPL braced for...

… imminent tasting of strawberry Jaffa Cakes

…next week’s Listen With… SPL (Wednesday 17 June, 3 – 4pm); have a cup of tea with our Ryan in Residence and Peggy and Dave and read poems. If it’s sunny, we’ll take to the terrace. Lovely.

… a course on National Security Initiatives next week, including how to deal with the alarming sounding Vehicle and Person Borne Improvised Explosive Devices

… more exciting words, and not just those found under the cover of poetry books. Robyn remarked that she had received the word ‘cripes’ twice in one day from two different correspondents. We’ve also found reason to enjoy Baron, almanac and stramash.

… Refugee Week (15 – 21 June) including Shared Poems and lunch in St Andrew Square on Thursday 18 June from 1 – 2pm.

… the weekend! Weatherman says rain :(

We want you to complete our headline, SPL braced for… Prize for bests!

It is with a degree of trepidation that I cross the threshold of the library today… because I am carrying a packet of STRAWBERRY jaffa cakes. Things could go badly wrong at Friday tea-break-time. They are surely going to be in the category of things are are just not quite right.

Maybe? Maybe not? The strawberry jaffa cake.

Maybe? Maybe not? The strawberry jaffa cake.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with strawberries. Edwin Morgan gets it absolutely right in his poem ‘Strawberries‘ – right down to that perfect last line: ‘let the storm wash the plates’. (We have lovely free postcards of this poem by the way – drop in to get some or we can post them to you.)

Dare I say that a good poem is like an original jaffa cake (orange), and that a not-so-good one is maybe (they’ve yet to be tasted of course) more like a strawberry jaffa cake. Some poems are just perfect – all the ingredients blend together to create something greater than the sum, something that lingers in the mind for ages. Others just don’t. Those good poems – happy accidents? Or more likely incredible skill hiding behind apparent simplicity.

Last lines – are they the hardest part of the poem to get right? Poets out there, tell us please. The challenge of bringing a poem to a close, yet quietly leaving it open for the reader. I’m reminded of the story of Robert Frost and the ending of his poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. I hope I’ve not imagined this – correct me if I’m wrong. But I believe he was writing the poem and didn’t know how to end it, so just to fill the space of the last line of the last stanza temporarily he repeated the third line of that stanza: ‘And miles to go before I sleep.’ But somehow that sounded right, and he never did change it. And how could it be any other way now?

We’ll let you know how the strawberry jaffa cakes tasted later maybe…


Andrew Philip. Photo by Marc MarnieLadies and gentlemen, please put your virtual hands together for Andrew Philip. We’re delighted to provide the first platform and the first leg on his virtual book tour! Andrew’s first collection, The Ambulance Box, was published this year by Salt, and launched here at the SPL in March. Of his work, Michael Symmons Roberts said ‘A timely reminder of the range and power of the lyric. This is a powerful debut, and Andrew Philip is a significant new voice.’

Andrew was born in Aberdeen in 1975 and grew up near Falkirk. He lived in Berlin for a short spell in the 1990s before studying linguistics at Edinburgh University. He has published two poetry pamphlets with HappenStance Press—Tonguefire (2005) and Andrew Philip: A Sampler (2008)—was chosen as a Scottish Poetry Library “New Voice” in 2006, and starred as our Poet of the Month in March past.

Where did it all begin?

Two Ladybirds: “Tootles the Taxi” and the wonderful “Bedtime Rhymes”, both of which I’ve recently had cause to rediscover. Of course, the fact my mother put me to bed as a toddler with the afternoon play may also have exerted an influence.

All through school, creative writing was one of the tasks I enjoyed the most and was best at but it wasn’t until my sixth year of high school that poetry dug its teeth into me and refused to let go.

What is the weather like at your destination?

Winds light to variable.

Tell us a little of the Andrew Philip writing method

Long hand unless I’m on a shooglie train. A little black Moleskine — oh I do like those Moleskines — for first jottings, a chunky notebook for the serious rough drafting and a foolscap exercise book for when I want to see the overall shape better. Then on to the computer. Usually, there are further changes to the first print-outs.

Actually, there are two chunky notebooks on the go, alternated at roughly two-month intervals to give me distance from ideas. It’s a trick I stumbled on after I was away in Dublin for a month with the day job and rediscovered some rough drafts in a notebook I’d left at home.

There have been periods of outpouring, but mostly it’s hard won. The poems don’t generally end up looking like their initial drafts. If I’m lucky — and occasionally I am — the changes are fairly few. Nothing worth doing is effortless, but the effort extends across all the work you’ve ever done, not simply the individual poem.

Whose understudy are you?

I’m a student of many masters. Doing MacCaig in school broke the idea of free verse open to me. Hopkins and Eliot were early teachers after that, and I’m probably going to go back to Eliot again soon after watching that BBC documentary at the weekend. Donne is essential. Likewise Rilke and Celan. I learnt a lot from Michael Symmons Roberts about writing effective contemporary poetry out of a religious viewpoint, and I’m learning more about that from Gillian Allnutt.

Gael Turnbull has been great for expanding the possibilities; still a lot to learn from him. I didn’t appreciate what he was doing when I first encountered his work, but my eyes gradually opened so that, by the time I got to know him a little, I was ready for it.

Have you arrived at something yet?

Recently, I’ve managed to achieve sufficient Gaelic to begin to appreciate the sound world of the language’s poetry. It’s lamentable how few Scottish poets outside the Gaelic writers have any proper access to that. They don’t know what they’re missing. They don’t know what the Scottish education system has deprived them of. I always loved Meg Bateman’s poem ‘Aotromachd’ (‘Lightness’) in its English translation, but it’s even more amazing in Gaelic.

Andrew Philip


If you had to pick just one poem, the one that means the most to you, which would you pick?

I’d be paralysed. I can hardly choose a beverage without endless deliberation, so how could I manage this?

Okay, if you pushed me, at the moment, it would probably have to be ‘The Night’ by Henry Vaughan: “There is in God (some say) / A deep, but dazzling darkness”. There are other candidates, but that has acquired particular resonance in the past few years.

Your best gig?

The joint launch of The Ambulance Box and Rob A Mackenzie’s The Opposite of Cabbage here at the SPL really takes some beating. The audience is always well disposed towards you at a launch, but to have an above-capacity audience so well disposed to you makes for an incredible night!

Tonight I will be mostly wearing… what?

You’re asking me for fashion advice? I was once known to all and sundry as Andy Hat. I may yet return to that state of grace one day, but the winds around here intromit.

What song?

At the moment, I’m savouring Bruce Cockburn’s two-disc live album “Slice o Life”. Bruce has been part of my life for the best part of 20 years <gulp!> and, although some of his spark has dimmed a little in the past few, he’s still a mind-blowing guitarist and a passionate, intelligent singer-songwriter. His best recordings are just him and his guitar, as all this album is.

Please describe yourself as a poetic meter; a biscuit; a toy from your childhood.

I’d be the caesura — quiet but, hopefully, full of meaning.
Choco Leibniz Dark — good with a strong black coffee; not so good without.
Weebles — I’d like to think I’ve a similar resilience without the girth.

Who’d play you in a film of your life?

David Tennant. I’ve always harboured a desire to be Doctor Who and that would achieve it by proxy.

What did you expect?

I’m not entirely sure what I did expect, but I never expected to have such a handsome — if I do say so myself — book with one of the most dynamic publishers around. Nor to have people say such wonderful things about it as they have been. I’m truly grateful.

After all this time, what has the beach left to say to the tide?

Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?

What is the next line in this sequence?

The virtual book tour continues next week at the Crafty Writer and carries on through a variety of stops, including a jaunt to Wales, two to the USA and one to Switzerland.  I’ve a bundle of readings this June: on Sunday 14th, you can take tea with various Linlithgow-based authors including me in the marquee at Linlithgow Rugby Club — all very civilised — and then catch me at the Jekyll & Hyde along with Zorras, Allan Crosbie and Katy-Evans Bush. On Saturday 20th, I’m reading at Word Power Bookshop with Matt Merritt, Rob A Mackenzie and James W Wood. Rob and I are also at the Lot and the Pleasance Cabaret Bar the same day as part of thePROJECT2. The month’s readings finish on the 29th at Lemon Monkey in Stoke Newington, London, with Rob and Katy again and the prominent dissident Chinese poet Yang Lian. After which a significant family event will be taking up plenty time. And if there’s any time and energy left after that, I have plans for an anthology of poetry from post-devolution Scotland.

Tour dates in full:

10 June – Our sweet old etcetera

17 June – The Crafty Writer

23 June – One Night Stanzas

26 June – Douglas Robertson

29 June – Dumbfoundry 

2 July – Boxologies 

8 July – Robert Peake 

15 July – Cadwallender 

22 July  – Poetry Hut 

29 July – Andrew Shields

The Ambulance Box (Salt)

Dave contemplates those men on MercuryHere’s why working at the poetry library is great: on my very first day, there was cake. Tasty cake, too. I think it was lemon, but what sticks in my mind is how that sugary goodness gave me a warm feeling after what had been quite a nervous morning.

The sheer volume of information that a Library Assistant – for that is my new title, dear reader – must absorb is mind boggling. From the oasis of calm in the reception area, it might seem like a well-disciplined and simple working environment, where each concern is neatly cordoned off from the next.


My first few days were spent flailing around in a space that does not comfortably house my legs (the bruising’s starting to subside now), panicking slightly every time the phone rang, and very efficiently covering the desk with indecipherable notes. I’m not entirely sure what “AP LOOK FOR Q’S” means, but I hope it wasn’t important.

The benefits of librarianship, however, are manifold. When Lizzie told me that I should become more acquainted with the stock, it was like ordering someone in a sweetie shop to familiarise themselves with the truffles. And if that seems geeky to you, you’re in the wrong business, buddy.

There were some lovely little victories too. After four years of undergrad and 9 months of postgrad, my good pal Struan finally decided to sign up, and Steph and Mattia were successfully introduced to Edwin Morgan’s ‘The First Men on Mercury’. It doesn’t sound like much, but it made my day, for reals.

With only a little hyperbole, the folks at the SPL are the best, ever. If the rest of my six months here are as good as the first week, I think we’re gonna be aaaaaaalright.


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