Blue sky thinking

April 30, 2010

I returned from the USA a week later than I expected. Chicago – home of the Poetry Foundation and the Art Institute – is no bad place to be stranded, and it has marvellous bookshops, too, but I was glad to be home and especially just in time to go to Edwin Morgan’s party. I see today that Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales,  has made a poetic virtue of necessity, and it’s a point of view with which I sympathise. It’s going to be trains for me for a while!

Blue Sky Thinking

Let’s do this again, ground the planes for a while
and leave the runways to the racing hare,
the evening sky to Venus and a moon
so new it’s hardly there.
Miss the deal, the meeting, the wedding in Brazil.
leave the shadowless Atlantic to the whale,
its song the only sound sounding the deep
except the ocean swaying on its stem.
Let swarms of jets at quiet airports sleep.
The sky’s not been this clean since I was born.
Nothing’s overhead but pure blue silence
and skylarks spiralling into infinite space,
a pair of red kites flaunting in the air.
No mark, no plane-trail, jet-growl anywhere.

Reproduced with permission of Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales, April 2010

For more information about the National Poet of Wales visit:

~ Robyn


April 28, 2010

Yesterday, Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s national poet, turned 90. In celebration, there was a soiree in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, which also saw not one but two books launched. Hamish Whyte of Mariscat Press  has just published Dreams and Other Nightmares: New and Uncollected Poems 1954 – 2009 and the Scottish Poetry Library, in collaboration with Hamish and Mariscat, have produced Eddie@90. Kept a secret from the man of the hour till last night, the book is ‘a celebration of his life and work, a collection of tributes from 80 friends and admirers all sharing their memories, affection and appreciation of the man and his work…’ Beautifully designed by Iain McIntosh and limited edition, it, and Dreams and Other Nightmares, are both available to purchase from our shop. You can also read Eddie@90 online on the bottom right hand corner our homepage.

The cake was fresh cream and had space candles. The crowd was large. The mood was high. You can read newspaper pieces marking the Age of Edwin from the Scotland on Sunday, the Scotsman and this wee Herald piece, where he looks very jolly in the photo cutting the cake alongside Liz Lochhead and Ron Butlin.

Aonghas MacNeacail wrote this lovely poem in reflection on the occasion, and let us reproduce it here.

edwin @ 90

more can –
can more?
ceann mór
“great head”
aye brims
with poem –
king bard

Happenings 32!

April 23, 2010

This week we returned to our cake-enjoying ways with a toffee variant courtesy of Foodies down the road. We have a new face at the front desk – Lisa – and it would only be rude not to welcome her in the way we love best…

Tom Pow and his suitcase of Dying Village artefacts have taken up residency, from yesterday till tomorrow, by way of a recorded tour today with Ryan and Colin. He invites you to come and explore his finds, and enjoy the sights and sounds of his adventures, and listen to his stories at 1pm and 4pm tomorrow.

Speaking of audio, Tim Turnbull is the star of our current podcast, and hot on his heels next week we’re going to be hearing from the lovely folk of the Southbank Centre in London, including an excerpt from the amazing Bellowhead‘s folk opera version of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ featuring Lemn Sissay as the Mariner… OOH!

We can’t believe it’s a year since our Edwin Morgan Archive was launched to the world, which means it’s almost a year since Edwin Morgan’s 89th birthday, which means next week he’s 90. There’ll be plenty more where this came from then…

In this week’s events news, the Poetry Society’s Poetry Doctor and our regular blogging columnist Kona Macphee held a day of surgeries; Iain Matheson, frequent face at and friend of the library held a night of violin and poetry, in which lovely Dutch violinist Kees teamed up with librettist and Edinburgh Makar Ron Butlin.

Lorna was at the National Gallery of Scotland ‘Inspired? Get Writing!’ prize giving on Thursday (our warmest congrats to all involved), this time last week I was about to journey to the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, and we’re looking forward to welcoming our Robyn back from the U.S. We’ve also got some events plots up our sleeves… All this, and more, next week!

Judges in the 10th Callum Macdonald Memorial Award praised the standard of 41 pamphlets they have seen from across Scotland. The 7 shortlisted entries show ‘a spirit of adventure in every aspect’, said Tessa Ransford OBE, widow of literary publisher Callum Macdonald.

The winner and two runners-up will be announced at a ceremony at the National Library of Scotland on Wednesday 19 May. The shortlist is:

Hugh Bryden of Roncondra Press, who is one of the judges, won the competition last year. The award is supported by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust.

You can see Tom Pow’s in residency with his Dying Villages project and exhibition here at the SPL from tomorrow, Thursday 22 April, 12 – 4pm.

There hasn’t been a Happenings post for a while, which seems unbelievable, given the number of excitements that have occurred! Most notably, our noble Dave, front desk poetry jockey, has moved on. We rarely need an excuse for cake consumption, so Dave’s departure was no different. Here’s to the next adventures of Dave!

We’ve been eventing in all kinds of ways, most recently just last night with a Nothing But the Poem session here with Ryan, Stewart Conn’s launch and the week before with Dark Matter: Poems about Space.

Next up in the events realm is Tom Pow’s Dying Villages residency from Thursday – Saturday next week, when he’ll settle in and unpack his suitcase of poems, stories, images and sounds gathered while exploring the dying villages of Europe, from Spain to Russia. There’s also an exhibition, displaying a range of artefacts from the Dying Villages Museum. Installed just yesterday, and photographed above, it looks great.

Our Robyn is in the U.S. visiting our siblings in poetry Poets House in New York, Poetry Foundation in Chicago and the Poetry Society of America, among others.

We were pleased to hear this sound snap, recently acquired by the British Library, of Ted Hughes and Sylvia discussing poetry and their relationship.

Off for a few art and poetry fixes this weekend: Julie is exhibiting work over in Glasgow at the Glasgow International Artists Bookfair and I’m skipping down to Grasmere to the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry!

Julie joined Twitter! You can now follow her on @poetrylibrarian!

We’re closed on Monday 19 for the April holiday, so see you tomorrow or Tuesday! Wishing you all a great weekend…

Our Robyn edited  the ‘Best New Zealand Poems 2009‘ – ‘mitigating the withdrawal symptoms I’d begun to experience after reading so much poetry for the anthology I edited last year with Andrew Johnston, Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets (Carcanet Press, 2009) – and selected, among others, a poem by Gregory O’Brien about the racehorse Dylan Thomas – ‘Dylan Thomas (B.2003), Coolmore Stud,  New South Wales’.

The poem has since been emboidered onto a fine horse blanket by Noel McKenna (pictured) and will be worn by a racehorse later this month at Noel’s exhibition opening in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney. Unfortunately it won’t be Dylan Thomas wearing the poem on this forthcoming occasion. D. T. is presently busy at stud in Ireland and won’t be back in Australia until September. So a similar horse, of some eighteen hands in height, will be wearing the custom-built blanket.

Poetry in motion? The smart money is moving…

Yesterday evening, Stewart Conn read from his new Bloodaxe collection The Breakfast Room here at the library, accompanied by John Sampson, the man of many musical talents. Stewart opened proceedings with a quote from Don Marquis: “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo”. I was unacquainted with Marquis, and any helpful references to archy and mehitabel passed me by too.

This morning, my desk was adorned by Lilias with archyology: the long lost tales of archy and mehitabel (not an uncommon occurrence, such poetical treats: only the other day it was Thomas Dekker’s ‘May’ – ‘O! and then I did unto my true Love say,/ Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my Summer’s Queen’.). The blurb explains: ‘One morning in 1916 newspaperman Don Marquis discovers a cockroach, jumping about on the keys of his office typewriter, tapping out a poem, letter by letter. The cockroach is archy, a free verse poet in a previous life. From archy’s poem he learns that the cat mehitabel was once Cleopatra. Thus begins a literary legend, the comic rantings of archy, whose poems use no capital letters, because the cockroach could not work the shift key on his boss’s typewriter. mehitabel is a racy, free-spirited alley cat . As she can’t type, archy, sophisticated wit, scandalmonger and whimsical philosopher, becomes her reporter…

Having written many popular books in the archy and mehitabel series, New York columnist Marquis’s archyology was only found when he died in 1937, having been packed into a trunk and left in a Brooklyn warehouse. Lilias says mehitabel is the queen of cats. Rebecca West called her ‘a divine creature’. So today, I feel doubly lucky: a chance last night to hear Stewart read from his new book with John’s music in the library packed with his many well-wishers, and two excellent new acquaintances in archy and mehitabel to join me for lunch…

Nothing but the Poem

April 8, 2010

The new-born spring lent the atmosphere an ethereal freshness as the workshop for ‘Nothing but the Poem’ met in a corner of Oxgangs Library. While the first crocuses were opening up on the Meadows, a mini-bus of literary ladies from a near-by care home arrived to take part in the event run by Reader in Residence Ryan van Winkle. The concept was simple; choose a poem which you carry with you either in your head, memories or purse and share it with the group. At the start of the workshop, after much hurrying and scurrying to find all the books we would need, there were some extremely modest proclamations from all that they couldn’t think of any poems off the top of their heads. However, as soon as everyone had a cup of tea and some chocolate biscuits in them the poems began to spill out with much giggling and hilarity.

After the various professions of having very bad memory it was soon clear that this was far from the case. Poems, ditties, limericks and border ballads learnt from their schooldays spent as bonny wee lassies were soon being recited and, even if some titles were forgotten, everyone appeared to be mouthing the lines and joining in with the sections they knew. J.M. Hayes’ poem ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’ proved to be a favourite for everyone, and everything from the sonnets of Shakespeare, the lyrics of Burns and across the pond to Robert Service’s ‘Shooting of Dan McGrew’ was recited; the latter was leant an authentic air by the dulcet tones of Ryan’s lilting accent. Many of the recitations transported the rest of us back to a different time, either to when the poem itself was learnt or when it was first written. Ryan’s recital of Service’s poem perfectly encapsulated the atmosphere of the Yukon gold-rush,

Were you ever out in the great alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in the stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold.

As we all know words possess incredible power and for that small amount of time all were bonded through their love of the rhyme and the hilarity of what lines our collective memories had chosen to remember. The various ditties by Ogden Nash broke up the more serious study of W.B. Yeats and one lovely lady let out a chuckle after reciting the ending lines of Burn’s ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’, likening it to the popular Proclaimer’s song,

And I will come again, my love,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

It was an incredible experience to hear what poets and poems had remained with each participant and upon finishing the workshop I was reminded of Yeat’s poem ‘The Coming of Wisdom with Time’:

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

Our Nothing but the Poem sessions invite you to renew your love of poetry with a fresh approach to reading. In these relaxed discussions you won’t need any background knowledge; you’ll simply come fresh to the text of single poems, take the time to read deeply and let new discoveries emerge – without the pressure of reviews, criticism and hype. The next session is on Thursday 15 April, 6 – 7.30pm.

Rory Woodroffe assisted Ryan with running this session at Oxgangs Library. We thank him for penning his thoughts on the event.

Poems of Dark Matter

April 7, 2010

I see that BBC Four, in its ‘Beautiful Minds’ series, is beginning with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell tonight. Last night we were privileged to meet her at the SPL, where she and another distinguished astrophysicist, Paul Murdin, read and talked about the poetry of the cosmos, a welcome collaboration with the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Here that old division between the cultures of poetry and science was dissolved, because both write of immensities with a lovely precision. Like the dark matter about which both astrophysicists and poets speak so eloquently, poetry itself can be invisible to the naked eye and yet cause disturbances, effects, that are felt on a large scale. Nick Laird’s poem for Paul Murdin, ‘The Effects’ described this beautifully. Although Dame Jocelyn chose Walt Whitman’s poem ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer‘ which mocks the dry abstract scientists and contrasts them with the effect of walking out beneath the stars, in fact these two learned astronomers dazzled us with their discoveries.

~ Robyn

Recently, an American article made a louder-than-usual splash in the UK poetry chatterverse, via blogs, forums and social media.   The US Poetry Foundation’s prominent website published Jim Behrle’s satirical piece, “24/7 Careerism“, in which he plays devil’s advocate – at some length – about relentless self-promotion in the US poetry scene.  Unsurprisingly, poetry blogs and social networks were immediately set aflutter;  the theme is a sure-fire attention-grabber, since it’s guaranteed to provoke anxiety in any new or established poet who’s ever dared to do anything other than hide their poems under the bed.

While many appreciated the article, it had an edge to it that left a bad taste in my mouth.  (To be fair, it was a transcribed speech, which may have been rather funnier when heard rather than read).  Where a shorter piece might have been wryly sardonic, this extended theme-and-minor-variations eventually came across as bilious:  more defensive projection than witty self-deprecation.  An online commenter referred readers to Joan Houlihan’s satirical article “A modest proposal for poetry“, in which she refers to poetic infighting as rats in a crowded rat-box, and indeed Behrle’s piece did seem to represent another instance of one poet having a good bite at the others’ tails.

How did things get so bitter?  Taken in conjunction, the Behle and Houlihan articles allude to a surreal state of affairs:  the fact that it is now possible to establish an entire parallel economy based around poetry, but completely independent of any actual real-world readership of it.  Consider the following scenario:

1. A few high-quality Creative Writing MFA programs are started;  uptake is good, output quality is high because of selective intake, and the programs prove economically viable.

2. Other institutions scent a financial opportunity and start their own MFAs.  Teaching on these programs becomes the most viable way to make a living in poetry, so aspiring poets feel compelled to have an MFA on their CV to help their job prospects, further swelling the MFA market.

3. Standards on MFAs are not uniformly high;  as more programs spring up, both excellent teachers and excellent applicants are spread more thinly.  Places on programmes must be filled to keep those programmes viable.  Some institutions admit less-able writers, in a spirit of either blinkered optimism or willful cynicism.

4. Exiting their MFAs, fledgling poets begin their hungry quest for book publication, the perceived badge of admission to the profession (and to those MFA teaching jobs).  Their quest is made all the more urgent  by the need to justify having spent all that time (and possibly money) on the MFA.

5. In a publishing culture where first collection submissions are accepted mainly via fee-charging “competitions”, this swelling army of freshly qualified poets creates a whole new niche market:  small poetry presses can spring up and keep themselves solvent through competition entry fees from poets, rather than book sales to readers.  The less-able writers make the best “customers”, since every rejection they receive means a fresh fee-opportunity for another press.

In this elegant manner, a whole, self-contained micro-economy is created, requiring nothing more than a new influx of proto-poets each year.  It’s the poets themselves that are the ones bringing the money into the system,  either indirectly via government-subsidised course fees, or directly, via the impecunious poet’s traditional revenue sources:  day-jobs, bartending, loans.  Has anyone calculated the value of this micro-economy (still growing), and compared it with the revenue from actual poetry sales (still falling)?  Is it ten times bigger?  A hundred?  A thousand?  At what point does the whole thing tip over into the systemic equivalent of vanity publishing, a large sucker collective paying to produce a handful of artefacts that nobody wants?

I hyperbolise, of course, but to do so articulates my problem with the Behle rant:  it’s that it’s attacking the very people who are, to some extent, already victims of a potentially exploitative niche economy.  Although they are careful not to promise anything, postgraduate Creative Writing courses are partly selling a dream – the dream of being a published, recognised, prize-laden writer. [1] At their best, such courses will rise above this and truly educate, enhancing the lives of their students regardless of future “market outcomes”. At their worst they’re just another overpriced lottery, selling the desperate a low-odds ticket to fantasise about life transformed.

Although the Creative Writing economy is better established in the US, it’s by no means a solely US phenomenon.  Our American cousins are usually further up the entrepreneurial curve than we etiquette-laden Brits, but our economy picks up on profitable American trends before too long.  The number of Creative Writing MAs in the UK is continually growing. At a time of economic turbulence and cuts in government grants, it’s understandably tempting for universities to set up new fee-charging MAs; Creative Writing MAs must be a particularly juicy prospect, with their low overheads (no fancy lab equipment needed!) and their potential appeal to “Mature Students” (that euphemism for anybody over about 21) who might still have the savings to pay for them.  When unprofitable undergraduate degrees, and in some cases whole university departments, are being culled in the UK, it would be wishful thinking to believe that applicant quality will always be the prevailing force on MA admissions;  realistically, how many institutions can afford to turn away weaker applicants if this would leave a potentially revenue-generating course half-full and running at a loss?

I’m not fundamentally opposed to Poetry MFAs and MAs, but I think they move onto shaky ground if they elide the difference between “liberal education” (something that enhances the intellectual and creative life of the individual, without concrete market outcomes) and vocational education (something undertaken in order to obtain an employable or otherwise marketable skill.)  As far as poetry goes, offering the former is something that universities and colleges ought to be good at; appearing to offer the latter is disingenuous, since there is no clear vocational career path for poets (teaching Creative Writing aside) [2].

It’s not surprising that new poets who interpret their MFA/MA courses as preparation-for-a-vocation, and aren’t adequately disabused of this [3], come out riddled with anxious ambition, squabbling for crumbs and trying to find any possible route to the “vocational” goals of publication, prizes and peer esteem.  If you’ve taken an expensive vocational qualification, and those things are the markers of vocational success, then it’s perfectly logical to strive for them as the expected (or even deserved) fruits of your education.  The fact that, en masse,  this results in so much back-biting, infighting, suspicion, schadenfreude and exploitative “networking” is depressing, but also unsurprising.

To be a rat fighting in a crowded rat-box, as Houlihan portrays it, is an unhappy state;  being caught on the hook of perpetually-withheld external validation is genuinely painful, and can do real psychological harm. I hope that Jim Behrle has a proposal for healing the “24/7 Careerism” disease he satirises, and that he’ll promulgate it with as much energy as he put into this somewhat cheap shot of mocking the rats.


[1] UK MAs are no exception;  for example, a prominent Creative Writing MA has previously taken out full-page magazine adverts listing the publication credits and prizes of programme alumni.  It’s a fantastically good marketing strategy, but it’s also a little disingenuous – like advertising some magic pill called “Bust-a-vite Women’s Nutrition Supplement” with torso-shots of big-breasted, bikini-clad lovelies, and then rejecting false-advertising complaints on the grounds that “we never actually said it would make your boobs bigger”.

[2] If there is one, can somebody please tell me what it is?

[3] Yes, I do acknowledge that some students simply won’t be told what they don’t want to hear, and courses can’t really be held responsible for that.

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 third batch of sessions here in the library on Wednesday 21 April. You can now hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.