It snowed for the first time!

We have been grateful to receive Christmas cards, both paper and electronic, bringing tidings of great cheer! Thank you!

And chocolates. More thanks!

We hosted a Poems Aloud for Christmas and 25 people hustled in from the cold.

Lilias met with readers and writers in residence who have worked in prisons to share thoughts and ideas, poems that work and ones that don’t.

Our Carry a Poem anthology, a joint venture with the team at Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature and 2010 One Book One Edinburgh book has gone to the printers. Excitement mounts for February! Designer Emily Isles has done a terrific job.

Jane is readying the Poetry Reader for print beside me as I type – with pieces from J O Morgan, Rachael Boast, supplier of fine wines to SPL events Michael Romer, outgoing and ineffable chair of our board Joyce Caplan, and a sonnet from Willie Hershaw, it’s shaping up to be a beezer.

Our Christmas podcast, lest ye forget, is out!

Having discovered the lentil soup (made with real ham stock!) at Foodies down the close, lunch in this bleak midwinter is never likely to be the same again.

We popped up a new featured translation: Fred Johnston translates this lovely untitled French piece by Colette Wittorski

Douglas Dunn popped in, having been with Robyn at the official unveiling of the new poetry quotes at the Parliament Canongate Wall.

Dave made an attractive sign for our bargainous SPL pencils.

Our shop is almost ready to go live at an internet near you…

Next week we close for Christmas on Tuesday 22 and reopen on Tuesday 5 January 2010. Before we bid you the best of festive, we’ll be signing out of 2009 with a bumper list of all the things that have made it a special year in poetry, both here in the SPL, and beyond! See you then for one last spin on the poetical dancefloor…

Get it while it’s hot! Ryan and Robyn took part in a discussion about home as part of the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s Storytelling Festival – Robyn was born and bred in New Zealand and Ryan in Connecticut in the U.S. – and they got together to talk about the poems they’ve carried with them overseas. It was so enthusiastically received that podcast producer Colin decided we should stage a reprisal one afternoon in the library. And we did, and here it is. Also on here, a specially commissioned, fabulous reinterpretation of Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’, by Toby Mottershead and the Black Diamond Express. I don’t know about you, but my ma (and apparently Ryan’s too) used to read this to us every single Christmas eve. What a treat. Of course, Black Diamond Express have conjured up quite a different rendition to the one to which I’m accustomed… A personal sadness to find out that Moore doesn’t look like Santa Claus, as I’d always secretly hoped.

Mariscats and iguanas

December 17, 2009

How to Hug and Other Poems (Mariscat), Susie Maguire‘s first poetry collection, was launched in the library last night. Delights included wine and mince pies, and these charming fellows above: papery iguana representatives of the pamphlet’s front cover, refashioned by Susie with the lovely Hamish Whyte and Diana Hendry in mind. And how does one hug? According to the eponymous poem:

Squeeze, gently, until your lungs wheeze,
till knees knock, press in until the world
slows in its dizzying spin and hold.

And hold.

Poems Aloud Christmas style!

December 16, 2009

Traditionally speaking, we have come to expect a merry band of 5 or 6 people to our Poems Aloud sessions. Traditionally speaking, I rope dulcet Dave and Ryan into reading, and by and by, a few folk will be cajoled into browsing and sharing. They’re always very lovely events, a chance to just enjoy poems aloud in the company of other listeners.

And so 3pm yesterday came, and with it our Christmas Poems Aloud. We put on the fairy lights and boiled the kettle, hustled a few chairs into a semi-circle and awaited the plucky few to join us. Only yesterday, 25 people showed up! The semi-circle became a throng: Dave kicked off, Ryan read one, and thereafter there was no stopping the flow of Christmas poems, cheery and otherwise. The tea had to wait till the end, till the mob dissipated and the tea ladies could make their way through the thirsty. We have no idea why this session captured the imaginations of the many: was it because of Christmas? Because of poetry? Or because, as Ryan claims, they were lured here on false promise of mulled wine…

Happenings 25 (late!)

December 14, 2009

Our Christmas party happened, hence the tardiness of our happenings! It obliterated Friday afternoon in a whirl of the holly and the ivy, stollen, making signs for the dance floor and the bar and arguing with Julie re smooth jazz vs cheesy tracks – we were both rewarded, with an even mix of Roy Orbison, ABBA, Miles Davis and what sounded like a Scouse Beatles tribute band singing the Twelve Days of Christmas.

On which note, turn your ear towards Frank Kelly’s take on the Twelve Days of Christmas, a regular feature on Irish radio in the run up to Christmas…

…or there’s always our lastest podcast, featuring Kapka Kassabova.

Our Lilias and Ryan had a rewarding trip to Portree in Skye via Inverness, to meet with our colleagues in poetry up there. She promises, under naggage, to blog about it later this week, so watch this space.

We’ve been pleased to receive some lovely Christmas cards, and a massive boax o chocs from an enquirer pleased with Lizzie’s detective skills.

An odd thing happened on Friday: a gang of four flew in on some kind of treasure trail. They had to swap a loaf of freshly baked bread for an item from the library – we obliged with a Burns Banner poster. We are none the wiser, but the bread was delicious.

We’re thinking a lot about sonnets…

…and putting the next edition of the Poetry Reader to print.

And a nice story to end: we had an enquiry regarding a poem heard on TV. The enquirer wasn’t sure what programme or channel, only that the director Hope Dickson Leach was somehow involved in the making of the programme and that the poem was about being deaf. Google hadn’t helped and he wasn’t sure how else to proceed. We love a poetical challenge, and it so happens that Twitter played a large part: we found Hope Dickson Leach on there, and she passed our enquiry onto the director was also turned out to be the poet, who supplied us with the poem and a link to the 3 minute wonder in which it appeared! Our enquirer was best pleased.

Kapka speaks

December 11, 2009

This week’s podcast is out and golly it’s a good ‘un. In it, Ryan reveals the poetry books he’ll be buying for folk (hope his family weren’t listening…) and speaks about the ones he’s particularly enjoyed this year. Then he badgers SPL staff to do the same. Enter Kapka Kassabova, fabulously outspoken ‘cultural mongrel’ who now resides in Edinburgh having come via Bulgaria, New Zealand, France and Germany. She speaks about the value of poetry, how long it takes for a poem to gestate and her feelings about landscape poetry, to name just a few topics…

Recently, I received a frustrated email from a writing-minded friend of mine. After a change in circumstances, he’d suddenly found himself with a lot of unaccustomed free time.   As often happens in such situations, he was finding it very hard to seize the opportunity and make some progress with his writing.  My friend chastised himself for all the time he was frittering away on irrelevant activities, and wondered if he might be better off heading out to a cafe every day, to get some writing done far from the distractions of home.  Perhaps that would help him –  but if there’s one thing that can be said for procrastination, it’s that its highly portable.  You can do it just about anywhere.

We often use pejorative language when we refer to habitual behaviours: “stuck in a rut”, “hidebound”, “enslaved by routine”.  Certainly, shambling through your life on autopilot, without pause for reflection, is not a recipe for fulfillment;  Socrates went so far as to say that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.  For already-thoughtful people, however, and particularly for creative individuals, habit can be a useful defence against the confounding forces of procrastination and avoidance, because it reduces the burden of trivial decision-making.

There are all kinds of arbitrary axes for dividing people into two distinct groups (my favourite being, “people who believe that people can be divided into two distinct groups, and people who don’t”).  How people feel about decision-making is one of these axes;  some people are generally happier before the decision is made (keeping their options open), while others are more at ease afterwards (having things done and dusted).  This difference has even been used as one of four key distinguishing characteristics in a well-known personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, where it’s described as “Perceiving vs Judging”.  Whichever state of decidedness you prefer, the actual act of making a decision seems to cost something: it’s an investment of mental and emotional energy, however small, in the process of weighing up and choosing.

When we lived in England, we had a deep-discounting Aldi supermarket nearby and did much of our grocery shopping there.  I liked Aldi precisely because of its restrictive, own-label-only ethos:  one brand of flour or apple juice, one type of dishwasher tablet, one variety of cheddar.  I don’t want to be offered 13 varieties of toilet paper or 24 different kinds of shampoo;  how can I possibly make an informed comparison between them?  That much choice – with its resultant demand for decision-making, however superficial – is simply a burden. Now that I have to shop at ordinary supermarkets again, I generally end up screening out all that spurious choice by sticking to the same narrow selection of products each week and ignoring the rest. The cost of constantly having to choose far outweighs any possible benefit I might get from some marginally-different, competing-branded alternative, so I let habit take away the work of trivial decision-making.

When applied consciously and judiciously, habit and routine can act as creativity’s unexpected allies.  Creative activity is a bit like deliberate exercise: it’s enjoyable, but also effortful, and sometimes it takes a bit of self-discipline to get started and keep going until you’re warmed up.  This costs energy, so the last thing you want to do is waste any of that precious energy on the peripheral task of deciding when (or whether) to sit down and get stuck in.  If you can set aside a regular slot in the day or the week for your creative activity, keep it sacrosanct and always turn up, then you start to reap the benefit of habit:  you don’t have to waste energy on choosing when to do it, or on wrestling the twin demons of procrastination and talking-yourself-out-of-it.  You turn up and do your thing as a matter of course;  it becomes a no-brainer.

There’s an enjoyable blog called “Daily Routines” (subtitled “How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days”), with descriptions “culled from books, newspapers, magazines, and Web sites.”. It’s interesting to look through the entries and notice just how many highly creative people have relied on a very regular daily routine to support their productivity.  Habitual routine is a natural form of energy conservation, allowing you to hoard your fortitude for the creative choices required by the artistic or inventive work, rather than squandering it on banal, procrastination-inducing decisions about today’s schedule.

As you might by now suspect, I’m a habit zealot because I myself am a recent convert to the cause.  I used to be an “inspiration-driven” writer, waiting to be struck by the right mood, the irresistible creative impulse, the  “rare, random descent”.   As a result, I was also a self-described “slow writer”, and eventually became a stopped one;  with a family and two non-writing jobs on the go, it was all too easy to decide that I had “no time to write”, instead of acknowledging the fear of failure that was causing me to avoid writing.  Things only turned around once I set aside a regular time and place – the very early morning before the kids were up, in bed or on the sofa in my bedroom – and fired up my laptop to write, whether I felt like it or not.  Now I wake, drink my coffee and reach for that computer as a matter of course, without thinking, without deciding.  My productivity has never been higher  – in fact, it’s never even been close to this before.

Of course, you may be one of those blessed individuals who never has trouble getting started, never procrastinates, and feels spontaneously and overwhelmingly inspired to be creative whenever the opportunity presents itself in your life.  If so, then buy your muse a very large drink and be grateful every day for your extreme good fortune.  If you’re like the rest of us, however, constantly facing a battle to get out of your own way and get on with it, then why not see if a few new, good habits can be added to your armoury?

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.

Cheese and whisk(e)y

December 9, 2009

On Thursday last week we had the great good pleasure of welcoming Bernard MacLaverty to the library for an evening of raconteuring, whisk(e)y (it was Ireland’s finest Jameson’s, truth be told), oatcakes and cheese. He spoke loosely about his journey through poetry, and what poetry has meant to him, in the context of his life as a student, lab technician, teacher and writer. It was particularly insightful to hear him talking about his involvement with ‘The Group‘, Philip Hobsbaum‘s writing sessions which nurtured the talents of some of the greatest Irish writers operating today. Especially lovely to hear of the ‘school kid’ who turned up with a big mop of hair and poems to die for – Paul Muldoon, no less!

Here are the poems Bernard chose as the landmarks in his life.

Gerald Manley Hopkins – ‘As kingfishers catch fire
W B Yeats – ‘Memory’
Seamus Heaney – ‘Bye-Child’
Michael Longley  – ‘The Amish Rug’
Paul Muldoon –  ‘The  Sightseers’
Emily Dickinson – ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ | ‘None be missing’
Elizabeth Bishop –  ‘Manners’
Norman MacCaig – ‘Ringed Plover by a water’s edge’
Iain Crichton Smith – ‘Two girls singing’
Edwin Morgan – ‘Midge’
Don Paterson – ‘Waking with Russell’
Kahtleen Jamie –  ‘The Wishing Tree’
Derek Mahon – ‘A Disused shed in Co. Wexford’

And above is a gratuitous photo of the cheese flags I handcrafted from toothpicks and labels. Orkney Cheddar, or cheese from Arran, anyone?

Ladies and gentlemens, our podcast is out! Plug in and kick back as Ryan talks to Francis Bickmore, senior editor at Canongate Books, and Toby Mottershead of Edinburgh band Black Diamond Express about Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘. Their discussion covers Nick Cave, Iron Maiden, what we expect from literature and how poetry can fit neatly into a busy schedule, among other things. It also features the track ‘Jack’ by Black Diamond Express.

The above picture was taken by Flickr user Ottoman56 and we are grateful to use it under a Creative Commons license. It features wedding guests. See what we did?

Around forty dedicated listeners to Terry Wogan’s Radio 2 breakfast show, or TOGS (Terry’s Old Geezers/Gals) as they are better known, gathered at the Scottish Poetry Library for an evening of Toggerel  on Friday 27th November to raise money for Children in Need. Regular contributors to the show, Sally Forth, Rhea Juvenate, Milicent Grumble and Crookey, the Crooked Man from Old Bangor Town, read a mixture of their own and well-liked poems, alongside other members of the audience, who were inspired to ransack the shelves for old favourites  – or pressed into service by the masterful MC of the evening, “Voice of the Balls”, Alan ” Deadly” Dedicoat.  Along with the choices of other members of the breakfast team, Terry Wogan had sent Deadly along with a request to read two of his own favourites: ‘Adlestrop’, by Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.  And with the wine flowing the TOGs were even inspired to pen their own valedictory Words for Wogan.

Many, many thanks to Alison Campbell and Liz Allen for all the hard work and personal contributions they put into making the evening a success. Liz managed to turn up TOGS in the most surprising places and secure some amazing raffle prizes. As a result, the evening raised £700.34 for Children in Need, and fun was had by all.