elephant and giraffe

Elephant Runs - Lake Manyara. Used under creative commons license. Photo by Flickr user Mark Veraart

A while ago, I found myself acting as a marshal at the 9km mark of a local 10km running race.  Less than half an hour after the starting gun fired, the front-runners came through, leading a pack of lycra-wrapped humanity that variously pounded, loped and finally plodded past me during the next forty-five minutes.

My marshalling station was at the top of the course’s final hill, and the last few runners were clearly having a hard time of it.  A knot of spectators had built up, and applauded each runner as he or she passed, shouting encouragements:  “Well done!”  “Nearly there now.”  “Fantastic effort!”  “Keep it up!”  The last runner was an exhausted lady who was only just managing to stagger along,  and I’m almost certain I heard the distant cheering when she finally crossed the finish line a few minutes later.

Of course, none of this is at all unusual.  Spectators at this kind of event are generally very even-handed, and celebrate the efforts of the speedy and the straggler with equal enthusiasm.  This seems only fair – after all, it isn’t that the people at the back are necessarily trying any less hard.  Furthermore, as a society, we generally congratulate people who get off the sofa, turn off the TV and make the effort to do some exercise.  We think it positive, even admirable,  that people should go out and run in a race that will take them three times as long as the winners to complete.  We applaud them for their effort and determination, not their velocity.

I came away from the race feeling inspired, but wondering – not for the first time – why our attitude to the arts can be so different.  I once played violin in a run of shows put on by an amateur light opera company, where the company’s director had cast himself as the young-and-handsome male lead.  He was stumpy and middle-aged, and – to be honest – a somewhat idiosyncratic singer, with a vibrato wider than the M8 and a face that explored progressively deeper shades of beetroot as he sang.  Nonetheless, it was clear that he was giving it his all, night after night.  It was equally clear that some of the audience had come along chiefly to laugh at him, which they did, unrestrainedly and sometimes to the point of tears, during his impassioned solos.

Certainly, the man’s mis-casting of himself in the lead role was a little vain, and his overblown delivery did have a certain inadvertent comedy.  Nonetheless, I was progressively more offended by the audience reaction as the performances went on.  Here was a man so passionate about his artform that he’d brought together a group of ordinary people and put on a successful show.  Why was that any less of a “fantastic effort” than the challenge of running a 10k race?  He was no Placido Domingo, but should that really make him the butt of mass ridicule?

Whether it’s mocking sniggers at a local art show or knowingly raised eyebrows at an open mic poetry event, the put-downs applied to “amateur” creative output do nothing but harm.  Contrary to stereotype, not every weekend painter riles about her masterpieces being neglected by the Tate, and not every unpublished poet wages hate mail campaigns against the editors who’ve rejected his work;  in other words, putting people down for their heartfelt and determined creative effort can’t always be justified as the rightful swatting of hubris.   On the contrary, it’s frequently an attack on something precious – namely, the vibrant but eminently crushable bloom of genuine enthusiasm.

Let’s be blunt:  plenty of amateur creative output can be assessed, not unreasonably, as “not very good”.  Poor technique, imitative execution and inadequate self-editing are genuine faults that cause real flaws.  Fair and cogent criticism of poorly-done work is not fundamentally objectionable, and can be both helpful and positively received.  Scoffing at such work, however, is not criticism;  rather, it is the dismissal of the creative act behind the work as having been not worth doing.  That worth – the intrinsic worth of the creative activity – is rightfully assessed only by the person who bothered to get off the sofa, or out of the shopping mall, and do it.

We live in a culture that floods us with passive entertainment opportunities, from the asinine titillations of reality TV to the fat Sunday broadsheets whose contents are forgotten before we’ve finished that second cup of coffee.  In an age where it’s all too easy to spend every hour of leisure being just another consumer, it’s inspiring when anyone bothers to produce:  to engage effortfully in an activity that’s creative or expressive, and to do it for no greater gain than the joy of the doing and the satisfaction of the completed artefact.  To stand by and mock the fruits of that effort is no less boorish – and certainly no less ignorant – than to jeer at the weary last finishers in a public running race.

By all means, let’s celebrate the Olympian glories of our creative professionals and the celestial work they produce – but let’s not demean the outputs of the rest of us in the process.  I certainly know what I’ll say the next time I encounter somebody who’s bothered to get up and have a go at something creative – even if the end result happens to be the artistic equivalent of a twenty minute mile.  “Fantastic effort! Keep it up!”

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 a second batch of sessions here in the library on Wednesday 27 January 2010. You can now hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’ and  follow her on Twitter.

Also! Kona’s Poem of the Week blog at Thingwright is 100 poems old! To celebrate, she is giving away a signed copy of Tails and one other mystery book… Visit Kona’s website and be in it to win it! Closing date: 11 December.

postcard from TimAs the week draws to a close, with ever darker nights and chillier Edinburgh winds, we doff our caps to this week’s run of Happenings…

Our latest instalment of pure liquid podcast gold is live and aching for your ears. Featuring Salt poets Julia Bird and Andrew Philip chatting about their poetic adventures, and zooming in for a closer look at the Global Poetry System, it’s well worth a listen. We advise you subscribe to be front of the queue, but you can download if you’d rather… Do email Ryan and Colin with your thoughts!

Ryan would additionally like to thank the email correspondent who offered to share their $78,000 wealth with him. He says his bank details are on their way…

Dave brought chocolate donuts!

Julie’s got her Essence Press hat in London, showcasing her wares at the Poetry Library Special Collections and Artists’ Books Open Day.

We were thrilled to find, via our poet pal Aiko, that the latest McDonald’s advert features poetry. Can you help us help Aiko discover the circumstances of the mature cheese advert currently also featuring poetry?

Robyn has spent a goodly part of the day cooking up March plans, and came across this paragraph while reading on the train: “The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses. For though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.” – Lots of people will know this quotation, but some may not, and it stakes a high and beautiful claim for poets and their language – it’s from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, ‘The Poet’.

Lorna completed a very successful session of workshops on war poetry with school children at Edinburgh Castle.

Beanbags, the Moustaches of Poets and fabulous Penguin book cover postcards (sadly out of stock, I spy! Horrors!) received from north-dwelling friends called Timothy have been tilting our windmills. What’s been tilting yours?

Till next week!

children's sectionA week or two ago, a delivery man hoved into view bearing a few big boxes.They were very light, and he was carrying them in a comedy fashion. He said, I don’t think there’s anything in here, I think someone has sent you a box full of air. He was disgruntled. The boxes in fact contained our new bean bags and a little green chair for our children’s section. We were very pleased to be able to purchase these thanks to the generosity of the Brownlee Old Town Trust. Now our children’s section is invitingly brighter than ever, and our little folks can burrow in and read away in comfiest fashion. My grandparents had a velvet beanbag with a swirly pattern; I recall being enveloped in it while tackling my first ever novel (George’s Marvellous Medicine). Hopefully our younger visitors will find similar bookish comforts as I.

Poet Moustaches

November 11, 2009

A friend called Al popped into the library yesterday sporting a moustache in progress. He revealed he is participating in Movember (the month formerly known as November), a moustache growing charity event held during November each year that raises funds and awareness for men’s health issues, specifically prostate cancer.

So this morning I am pondering the moustaches of poets, past and present. Lizzie has been the usual tower of strength in this matter, listing Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Masefield, Rudyard Kipling and Hugh MacDiarmid. We have mentioned here poets ranked by their beard weight before, and we have touched briefly upon moustaches in interview with that owner of a marvellously hirsuted upper lip, Tim Turnbull. But what other poets have moustaches? And why has the moustache slipped from fashion (outwith Movember, of course)?

Latest podcast here!

November 10, 2009

shetlandOur latest podcast is up and at ’em! In truth, it has been there since Friday: all you subscribers out there will know this – but because I was moonlighting for the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, the page wasn’t ready. There’s a reason to subscribe if ever one was needed!

In it, Ryan reveals how Federico García Lorca, his first poetic purchase, poured salve on his first broken heart, discusses the difficulty of the simple line and blackbirds in Glasgow, among other things, with Jen Hadfield, and music is brought to you by Lise Sinclair from the Fair Isle. A little treat from the far north.

As I type, Ryan is upstairs chatting with one of the Edinburgh-based Chemical Poets and Robyn sat down today to reveal what poems she carries with her. All coming tantalisingly, ear-poppingly soon, so keep your lugs to the ground and WATCH THIS SPACE…

Back in August, as clouds came and went over the Sound of Jura, a group of poets were focusing their thoughts and translation energies on Robert Burns and on the fall of the Wall: the 250th anniversary of the birth of one, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the other. We called the workshop – under the auspices of Literature Across Frontiers and the SPL – ‘Revolutionary Europe’. That title meant very different things to poets from Germany, Romania and Poland, and to us in Scotland. One of the many wonderful works that came out of the pressure-cooker at Crear, where the poets simmered for a week, was a poem by Michael Augustin that began with memories of children playing round the wall: no longer cowboys and Indians but defectors and police. And Scots provided just the right register for its mix of bleakness and humour, in the capable hands of Donny O’Rourke. So we’re marking that very significant anniversary today by featuring Michael’s poem (in the original German) and Donny’s translation on our site, and plan to follow it with more of the excellent poems from that very fruitful workshop – some of you may have heard them read at Crear itself or at the Book Festival in Edinburgh. The SPL is a window on the world as well as a window on  Scotland: these workshops show how we keep that window open, and the breeze blows both ways.

Season of mists

November 6, 2009

Peggy’s moonlighting at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival (if you’re nowhere near Aldeburgh, you can keep up to date with them on Twitter). So in the absence of the usual Friday Happenings, here’s a round-up of all things autumnal and perhaps even poetry-related:

Bright Star the movie

Keats on screen. We’re coming over all mellow, not to say fruitful. The SPL is  planning a cinema excursion very soon…

Loved the SPL Poetry Pub Quiz? This is almost as good. Test your knowledge of bonfire night books, and tell us how you get on!

Why autumn (or ‘fall’) is the best season for poetry.

Feeling SAD? Jeanette Winterson adores the long, dark nights – read this, and you will too.

Till next week!