June 30, 2010
To be brought up in Scotland is to have mixed feelings towards Robert Burns. Eating beige haggis and floury tatties, while listening to Jeananne Lamont from Primary 3b performing ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’, on the recorder. Listening to the headmaster talking of the National Barred who liked rodents. Having the evening completed by the ironically titled spectacle of ‘social dance’: a morass of trodden feet and attempts to dodge the necessity of holding hands with Gareth Sneddon.
And yet, despite the often traumatic experiences of our early Burns-life, we are fiercely proud of him: a persistent elder brother about whom we frequently moan but other people criticise at their peril.
For public examples we need look no further than August this year when Jeremy Paxman condemned the writing of Burns as ‘sentimental doggerel’ in the foreword to the Scottish-based Chambers Dictionary. Later in the autumn, the Burns Culters regained the high-ground when Bob Dylan named ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ as the lyric which had the biggest effect on his life. You may be something of a cult figure, Mr Paxman, but in a kudos battle, Dylan gets it every time.
And so, with the opinions of Paxman and Dylan ringing in our ears, we enter Scotland’s ‘Year of Homecoming’ in 2009, the 250th anniversary of Burns’s birth. Theirs are not, however, the only voices that come to mind when we think of Burns. They are added to two centuries of cacophony, most of which echoes the sentiments of Dylan rather than Paxman.
However, it is not as simple as a Hampden roar trouncing lone shouts of criticism. Burns enthusiasts do not speak with a single voice. If the voices were played end-to-end, there would be years’ worth of ‘Immortal Memories’ framing ‘Rabbie’ as a family man (the author of ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’), months of him as a fornicator and drunkard (father of numberless children), weeks as a courtly lover (Clarinda’s Sylvander), weeks as a political radical, weeks as a Jacobite, weeks as ‘heaven taught ploughman’, weeks as Enlightenment educated. With a Memory that confused, why, oh, why, is it so immortal?
The confusion of praise might be accounted for by another cacophony, the many voices of Burns’s own poetry and letters. As tempting as it is to believe otherwise, it is not ‘Robert’ who speaks in ‘Tae a Moose’ or in ‘Tam O Shanter’. We struggle to extricate Burns-the-man and Burns-the-legend from Burns-the-oeuvre.
I am not suggesting that we must kill Burns to allow for the life of his work. Rather that we don’t make the mistake of feeling that because we know his life story we don’t have to read the poems.
There’s a line in the film Sliding Doors, where a character claims that we are all born knowing the Beatles lyrics, and that they should really be called the ‘foetals’. But the works of Burns, like the songs of the Beatles, do not actually come to us with our mother’s milk. We have to read them, listen to them, learn them. We can’t just skip the poetry bit.
I would like to present, for your consideration, a classic version of this laissez faire attitude to Burns – myself. How often do I sit down and read a Burns poem I have never read before? I have based my enthusiasm on a lochan of works from a sea-sized collection.
I decided to take my first step on the road to improvement by spending some time with ‘The Lea-Rig’, which was classified in my mind’s Burns-database under ‘can pretend I know it’. On socialising with the poem, I find it gives me goosebumps. This is not the prim and prissy landscape of nineteenth-century painting, where beautiful scenes feature happy workers stealing moments of love while neglected livestock rampage about them. There is real exhaustion here; the listlessness of the word ‘dowf’ and the use of ‘weary’ for both oxen and humans. The longed-for tryst cannot take place before the day’s exhausting work is over. And when that moment does come, it is not in the warm glow of a summer’s evening, but the chilled and dew-hung ‘gloaming grey’.
So, I challenge you. In the year-long Immortal Memory that will be 2009, learn by heart a Burns poem you have never previously paid any attention to. Be careful. Learning a poem by heart is a big step. You are bedding it down in your own cells, so choose wisely. Have a read through a collection, trying to shut out as much as you can of the voices of Dylan and Paxman and their like, and instead, in your own voice, start reading them out loud and pick one to learn. Maybe the voice of the poem will tell you something new about Burns – man, work or legend.
Ishbel McFarlane is an actor, learn poetry by hearter and concrete poetry fan. You can listen to her talk about Burns some more on our podcast, ‘Inside the SPL‘ (highly recommended!).
This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader Issue 4.
Read more about Robert Burns on the new (2012) Scottish Poetry Library website – www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk
June 21, 2010
Well, slam competitors seem to think they are. And so do ‘performance poets’. What about the rest of us?
Let’s imagine you’ve just published a pamphlet of poems. Your local writers’ group has invited you to come and read to them. What’ll make your reading a success?
Think about the way the brain processes aural information. People are going to hear each line only once. It’s a million miles away from reading on the page, when the eye can jump back and forward at will.
Traditional aural forms (like songs and ballads) compensate for this by incorporating lots of repetition. If you hear the chorus or repeating phrase ten times, at least the key words will connect.
Your poetry, however, may well be free verse, with no repetitive structures to help the ear follow. Your audience is going to have to concentrate intensely to pick up every word and phrase. You need to help them.
That’s one reason why introductions to poems are important. They allow the audience to get into correct listening mode, the equivalent of ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’
Links between the poems allow you to switch between intense poem-register and conversational ease. The audience needs that. If you dive from one intense poem right into another, the chances are you’ll lose them. Listening well is really difficult.
Reading well isn’t easy either, of course, but it’s an art you can learn. Go and hear other poets in performance and learn from what they do (or don’t do), just as they have learned from others. Here are a few tips for starters.
1. Practise. Make sure you know how long both poems and links will last so you don’t, in any circumstances, over-run your time.
2. Read slowly and carefully. Speed kills.
3. Make your mouth work. Every single syllable needs to be heard.
4. Know the poems. (Know where they are in the book too.) If you know them well, you’ll know which line’s the one that trips you—and you’ll be ready for it.
5. Prepare your links as well as your poems. Keep the proportion right.
6. The closing words of each poem are crucial. If you look down at the page as you read them, your voice will go into your boots.
7. Before you start a poem, pause. When you end a poem, pause. Let a silence open. That silence is the white space at the top and bottom of the page, and it needs to be heard.
8. Look at your audience from time to time. If they can’t hear you, or aren’t following you, you’ll see it and adjust.
9. Keep your sense of humour. If you totally duff up a poem, stop. Apologise. Start again.
10. Not all poems will work equally well in performance. Choose those that do.
11. Make it varied. An intensely sad poem benefits from the contrast with something lighter.
12. Stand proud. It’s not about you, it’s about the words. Trust them. If they’re good ones, they will carry you
Helena Nelson is the founder and publisher of HappenStance Press, who this month celebrated their 5th birthday and last week won the Michael Marks Publishers’ Award. This column first appeared in Issue 3 of our Poetry Reader.
June 18, 2010
We contemplated our summer reading lists!
We attended the launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, having assisted Don Paterson in selecting a poetry strand within the programme.
We ate toffee cake.
Geoffrey Hill was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford with 1,156 votes. He will be the 44th Professor of Poetry since the role was created in 1708. We’ve been following the campaign with interest…
We were delighted with the volume of applicants for our library assistant job. Thank you to all who applied, and for taking an interest in our library and our work. Candidates for interview will be contacted sometime next week. The applications have now closed, but the Edinburgh College of Art are seeking a library assistant.
We are pleased for HappenStance Press, publisher Helena Nelson and poet Selima Hill for their recent success in the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets.
With a little tutelage and a lot of encouragement from the lovely Chris Scott, we got our Flickr groove on! We’ll be building more content, including old and wonderful scans, as the weeks go on. What would you like to see there?
Our Robyn addressed the Cockburn Society for their annual meeting. On Twitter, @thecockburn said:
great job by Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library. Everyone really enjoyed the lecture! @ByLeavesWeLive
We are waltzing off into the weekend now! Lizzie’s on duty tomorrow – do pop in and say hello if you’re in the area. Most importantly, whatever you do this weekend, whatever you read, enjoy!
June 18, 2010
£14,550 to £16,629 per annum (pro rata)
You will work as part of the Library team, primarily involved in the daily operation of the issue desk, reporting to the Reader Services Librarian. The issue desk is the first point of contact with library users and you will be required to provide assistance and support to users in a friendly and efficient manner. You will also contribute to other library processes and procedures as required.
Educated to higher level or equivalent with excellent customer care skills, you will be IT literate and a self-starter with strong organisational skills. You will be a self-motivator and good team player. Experience of working in an academic library and of computer based library management systems is desirable.
The closing date for applications is Friday 2nd July 2010. Interviews are expected to be held on Tuesday 27th July 2010.
June 18, 2010
A week or so ago, our colleagues up the road at the Scottish Book Trust unveiled their plans for summer reading. Now we enjoy a good list, and we also love a good book, so the natural next step was to compile our own…
Lizzie (Assistant Librarian)
It would be so nice to really read some poetry slowly rather than just hunting through it … I could start with any of Iain Crichton Smith’s …
Shoring up some time for Dark Matter: poems of space as I didn’t get time to take it in when it first came out
Anna of all the Russias: the life of Anna Akhmatova by Elaine Feinstein.
And as a break from poetry (yes, really!): Lustrum, the second in Robert Harris’s trilogy about Cicero
Art and Text from Black Dog Publishing – I got this for my birthday – full of images of work by artists using text.
I’ve just finished Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne so I’m now going to work my way through his The Complete Essays.
At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig is in my summer pile.
I’m interested in sound and silence at the moment, so have a pile of books on those subjects, including Listening by Jean-Luc Nancy
I’m planning to catch up with a couple of Bloodaxe lecture titles – Silent Letters of the Alphabet by Ruth Padel, and Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield
Poetry I’m thinking of:
The Best of It: Selected Poems by Kay Ryan has caught my eye and is my must-buy read (the cover and design is gorgeous)
And then I’m planning to spend some time really getting to know the work WS Merwin, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, WS Graham
And dip again into some constant favourites, such as Thomas A Clark, Robert Creeley, John Burnside, Alice Oswald
And I really want to spend lots of time exploring http://www.ubuweb.com/ – a fantastic source of visual, sound and experimental poetry and other artforms
I’m not really reading novels that often any more but I do like Scandinavian crime now and then. I’m thinking of starting the influential Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö from the 1960s.
Orlando Figes: Natasha’s Dance: a cultural history of Russia
Bill Manhire: The Victims of Lightning [poems]
Lorrie Moore: A Gate at the Stairs
Kay Ryan: The Best of It: new and selected poems
Into The Deep Street: Seven Modern French Poets 1938-2008, translated by Jennie Feldman, Stephen Romer
Bill Bryson – At Home, A Short History of Private Life
Carol Ann Duffy – Love Poems
Curtis Sittenfeld – American Wife
John Carlin – Invictus
J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
George R. R. Martin – A Feast for Crows ( Book 4 of a Song of Ice and Fire)
Jules Watson – The Swan Maiden
Just now I need to finish a huge biography of George I by Ragnhild Hatton. I expect my summer will feature some David Roberts murder mysteries, as Amazon recommended him for me, and some Mary Stewart. I also intend to read The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey, and maybe some more Alys Clare, I just finished one of hers and loved it… can you spot a strong crime and suspense theme? Other than that I will stroll down to my local library and take home anything that looks promising.
Peggy (Communications Officer and Events Programmer)
I am currently entertaining a torrid obsession with the work of novelist Richard Yates, which has recently been heightened by a wonderful gift of the titles I didn’t have. Having just read Disturbing the Peace, and currently on A Good School, the ones left to read (sadly few) are A Special Providence, Liars in Love and Cold Spring Harbor.
In order to delay the pain of finishing the above too quickly, I intend to finally tackle some of the bedside books that have been piling up of late. I’ll be dipping into Alex Ross’s tome The Rest is Noise, an epic sweep of the story of 20th-century music, and Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, a more manageable tome now it’s in paperback.
There’ll have to be a bit of Paul Muldoon: in preparation for our summer exhibiton Plan B, Muldoon’s poems interpreted through the photography of Norman McBeath, I think now’s the time for his The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures. I’m also dying to finally read Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.
June 17, 2010
The Signet Library was alive with the sound of excited chit chat, tangy raspberry mocktails and tiny breakfast canapés this morning, for the launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Julie, Robyn and I were in attendance for the unveiling of this year’s programme, the first under the directorship of Nick Barley. We’re incredibly excited to be involved again this year, having assisted Don Paterson in his guest selection of a poetry strand. Participating poets include Seamus Heaney, Jackie Kay, John Stammers, Sinead Morrisey, John Glenday and many more. And what with the mini-festival within a festival, Unbound, there’ll be music, poetry and story at night – every night, for free! – in the rouged embrace of the Highland Park Spiegeltent. The programme for Unbound will be released in 3 weeks time in collaboration with the Skinny.
If you haven’t picked up your paper programme, you can drop in and get one from us, or download it online. Get circling and get deciding! What’s your hot ticket? And for those of you unable to make it, we’ll be blogging the poetry strand right here. August, come hither!
June 17, 2010
Last night the winners of the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets were announced at a readings and award ceremony at the British Library. Selima Hill won the Michael Marks Poetry Award for her pamphlet Advice on Wearing Animal Prints, while Scottish press HappenStance won the Michael Marks Publishers’ Award.
Chair of the judges Ali Smith commended the winners, saying “Selima Hill’s Advice on Wearing Animal Prints is a courageous work; startling, strange and unforgettable, it’s a piece of disciplined wildness which grows in power with each re-read.” She admired HappenStance for “the elegance, thoughtfulness and clarity of their design, and the infectious interaction, open-mindedness and energy of their publishing ethos.”
Both winners, selected from over 150 entries, were presented with a cheque for £5,000 by Lady Marks.
We want to offer our warm congratulations to all shortlisted candidates and both winners, and are particularly delighted for Helena Nelson, HappenStance founder and publisher, and long time supporter of the work of the SPL and the poetry of others. Just last week we were pleased to play a part in a successful and rousing 5th birthday party for HappenStance here in the library. Above is the impressive cake!
June 11, 2010
It’s been a busy week down Crichton’s Close in which we’ve grappled with the inclement weather (we might have to agree with Alastair Reid in his poem ‘Scotland’: it does seem like we’ve been paying for the recent glimmers of sun!). We are alert to the subsequent difficulties this makes in garment choice. How to dress for wind and rain in June!
We’ve also been getting Amb:IT:ious; as a partner organisation in the Get Amb:IT:ion Fund, which helps organisations achieve their 21st century sustainability ambitions through implementing integrated IT and digital developments, Julie and I have been attending road shows and webinars aplenty. The latest was in Edinburgh, and we greatly enjoyed the keynote address from Bill Thompson and the case studies from Katy Beale and Martin Reynolds and Faith Liddell from Festivals Edinburgh.
Lilias and I went for a delightful visit to the Tower Care Home where we read poems to Babs, Susan, Margaret, Ann, Mary and Annie. We were put to shame by their capacity to remember poems, such as Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, learnt at school. We also got to indulge in a bit of singing, by belting out ‘Daisy, Daisy’ and ‘A Red, Red Rose’ (we had a flower theme!). Thankfully the ladies of the Tower Care Home are keen singers and were in fine voice on Tuesday morn.
Lisa, one of our two lovely front desk interns, has been filing poetry press cuttings amassed by our Alexei.
Lizzie had a lovely enquiry this week – an old lady had faint memories of a poem read to her at school in the 1920s, about being old – she could just remember:
‘Threescore and ten are the years o’ men,
And I’m bye the bit by a lang, lang year.
Sae I’ll seek my rest in the land loe’d best …’
Happily, it rang very faint bells with Lizzie too and turned out to be by John Buchan, written 1917! So Lizzie was able to send verified text to her grand-daughter just in time for the lady of the moment’s 100th birthday!
We enjoyed yet another excellent column from Kona Macphee, this time 10 rules for writers…
Robyn went to the Edinburgh College of Art degree show last night and was delighted to report that many students had heard of us and talked fondly of having visited themselves.
Tomorrow we’re looking forward to the 5th birthday party of HappenStance Press and next week we’ll be readying our Poetry Reader Issue 7 for print, discussing events and more. Till then, fellow travellers!
June 9, 2010
After a decade at the helm, Brian Johnstone, Festival Director of StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, officially stepped down on 31 May. He has handed over to the new Festival Director, Eleanor Livingstone, StAnza’s Artistic Director.
Brian Johnstone is a co-founder of StAnza, which started life in 1998 as a fairly small annual gathering of poets and poetry lovers in the Fife town of St Andrews. During his time as Festival Director, he has overseen StAnza’s astonishing growth both in audience numbers and in reputation. The festival is now a highlight of the busy arts calendar in Scotland and the UK, and regularly draws audiences from the rest of Europe and America. Last year, StAnza was short-listed for a VisitScotland Scottish Thistle Award, in recognition of its impact during Homecoming Year.
In previous years, Brian has brought a range of major American poets to the festival, commissioned art works from leading Scottish artists, featured both past and present Poet Laureates, and has brought to StAnza poets from over 40 countries. The last five years have seen sustained increases in attendances – 11,000 at this year’s festival – and StAnza has become a byword for excellence and hospitality.
Brian Johnstone said: ‘While I’m looking forward to having more time to pursue my own creative interests, I will also enjoy seeing how StAnza develops and grows, as I’m sure it will, under its new Festival Director. It’s been a privilege to develop such a major event and I’m delighted to be able to hand it on to such a dedicated successor. It’s going to be great – just you wait and see!’
On taking up her new role, Eleanor said: ‘During the last five years, working with Brian and our wonderful team has been a rewarding experience, and I’m looking forward with enthusiasm to the challenge of leading StAnza into the future. With so much great poetry available, so many exciting possibilities for future festivals and new types of poetry encounters and engagements, I’m sure StAnza can continue to expand and develop with our focus firmly on creativity and excellence.’
‘It’s been a privilege to develop such a major event and I am happy to hand over a festival of which we can all be justly proud,’ added Brian Johnstone. ‘Without the immense commitment and support of all our members and volunteers, StAnza could simply not have functioned. And without their sharing my vision for StAnza I would not have been able to achieve what I – in truth we – have achieved in making StAnza all that it is today.’
I’m not the only staffer here at the library to have had my first sip from the cup of poetry at StAnza while a student at St Andrews and some of us SPL folk make an annual pilgrimage for the festival – you can read our StAnza blogs here and listen to the StAnza podcasts here. We’d like to take this opportunity to wish Brian all the very best with the next adventure – which includes readings from his own collection The Book of Belongings (Arc), upcoming at the Borders Book Festival and beyond - and Eleanor continued success in her new role. Here’s to 2011!
“After Puckoon I swore I would never write another novel. This is it…”
So said Spike Milligan in his introduction to “Adolf Hitler – My part in his downfall”. In that spirit, inspired by Guardian’s recent Ten Rules For Writing Fiction series, here’s the “Ten Rules for Writers” column that I swore I’d never inflict on the world.
Rule 1 – Start.
Starting is everything.
If you’re a procrastinator, promise yourself you’ll just do ten minutes, and get going. Forty minutes in, do not be tempted to break off and apologise to yourself for lying about the ten minutes. Make the same promise tomorrow, and fall for it again.
If blank pages or empty screens are paralysingly intimidating, get rid of them as quickly as possible. If you’re stuck, try producing the absolute worst poetry or prose you’ve ever written, deliberately violating every precept of “good writing” that you can think of. This is surprisingly exhausting. You may find yourself falling back to some good writing just to have a rest.
Rule 2 – Stop.
Let go of the work when it’s finished, not when it’s perfect. You may not actually be clear about when the work is either of these things – but “finished” has the advantage of being arbitrarily decreeable.
Rule 3 – Sleep.
In a state of fatigue, it’s quite feasible to be inflexibly dutiful, but extremely difficult to be dazzlingly original. (Margaret Thatcher claimed to sleep only 5 hours a night as PM – a piece of related evidence that seems oddly compelling, if somewhat unscientific).
If you’re short of sleep you’ll still be able to get the dishwasher loaded, and maybe even file your tax return (though frankly it would be unwise to find these capabilities reassuring on any front.) However, you’re far less likely to have the mental vigour to do anything creative – with the possible exception of finding a fresh way to delude yourself that you’ll definitely make a start on that new piece of writing tomorrow.
Rule 4 – Habituate.
The lazy writer’s solution to the perpetual and odious requirement for extreme self-discipline is to remove all possible opportunity for the exercise of free will.
Sit down to write today because that’s what you did yesterday, what you’ll do tomorrow, what you always do at this time of the day. Establish a daily or weekly routine that includes writing, and cultivate your drooling, idiotic slavishness to it. Fall asleep at night with a post-productive glow, gratefully counting your inner sheep.
Rule 5 – Dress.
Be aware of the Writers’ Two Hats, neither of which may safely be left on a high shelf at the back of the wardrobe.
The first hat is for writing. It is large, as it must encompass the extremely big head of the average creative writer. As a result of its excessive size, the hat will occasionally slip down over your eyes, obscuring the fact that you have just produced several pages of utter drivel. This does not matter in the least.
The second hat is for editing. It is too tight, in order to remind you of the small-mindedness and nitpickery required for truly effective self-editing. If you encounter a certain internal resistance to donning the editing hat, remind yourself that small-minded nitpicking is much more palatable coming from you than from some clearly half-witted but unfortunately widely-read newspaper critic.
Rule 6 – Read.
Sub-rule 6.1 – Read the good.
Choose between :
- Option 1 – read some good work and then pick it into tiny pieces, hoping to winkle out its craftly secrets and osmose its authorial virtues.
- Option 2 – read some good work and simply enjoy it.
Honestly, this is a no-brainer. Stop trying to be a writer all the time, you fool.
Sub-rule 6.2 – Read the bad.
Read some work that’s simply bad (a google search on “heartfelt poems” provides a depressingly reliable starting point). This should remind you of the austere virtues of both diligent self-editing and hard-won mastery-of-your-craft.
Sub-rule 6.3 – Read the ugly.
Read some work that isn’t bad, but that you really don’t like. Think of it as a big plate of literary boiled cabbage: it might be quite revolting, but it won’t do you any harm, and might just loosen you up. If nothing else, you can hold up your little candle of erudition and bathe in the self-satisfied glow of the widely-read.
Rule 7 – Exercise.
Do not be intimidated by the sweating and panting of your exercise-loving friends. Their activities may look like self-punishment, but the truth is that their pain is entirely overridden by a powerful and wholly legal endorphin high. A good dose of exercise can provide the same morale-boost as an accepted submission. Just think of getting that emotional rush three times a week, without the need for SAEs.
Walking and running are great forms of exercise for writers: like writing, they can be performed (a) in solitude, (b) at a time and location to suit, and (c) with unwashed hair, in a range of comfortable-but-unfashionable attire up to and including your pyjamas.
Rule 8 – Detox.
Stop being so tolerant. Really. Just stop it. It’s hard enough to hold your nerve as a writer in the face of the world’s general and persistent indifference to your efforts; don’t make it tougher by interacting with people who are relentlessly whiny, negative, dismissive, or hostile.
Some individuals and groups are simply and determinedly toxic, so learn not to waste time and energy trying to argue with them, reason with them, chivvy them out of it or otherwise reform the bastards. Don’t keep buying umbrellas; take your parade somewhere they can’t acid-rain on it in the first place.
Rule 9 – Fail.
You’ll never find out how well you can write unless you go outside your comfort zone – and, inevitably, screw up on a regular basis.
You must develop the knack of accepting your failures graciously, learning from them and moving on. If you figure out how to do this, please send instructions. Believe me, I will pay.
Rule 10 – Recurse.
Remember Rule 1. Now get to it!
Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland.This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be further batch of surgeries here in the library on Saturday 17 July . You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and follow her on Twitter.