A very poetic thank you!

October 29, 2010

Via our ‘Lost for Words’ service, Lizzie recently received an enquiry: the enquirer’s husband had but a few half-remembered lines from ‘distant youth’; could Lizzie fathom the rest?  She sprang into action, the poem being ‘The Train to Glasgow’ by Wilma Horsbrugh, a longer poem published on its own as a children’s book, as well as being included in several anthologies.

We were delighted today when Lizzie received a thank you poem, written in the style of the rediscovered ‘The Train to Glasgow’, and doubly pleased to have Mr Miles’ permission to reprint it here.

This is a thank-you to Lizzie MacGregor,
That very kind lady who sent me the letter,
A poem from childhood a tale of a train
And the guard and some hens and that Donald MacBrain.

Now many years later recite I still can,
As far as young Donald’s hauled into the van,
But what happened next I just could not recall,
And no one I asked knew this poem at all.

Now things have moved on since those dim, distant days,
Our world of computers provides us with ways,
So, the whole of the poem’s come back in my life,
With thanks to you Lizzie and Jacquie my wife!

Penned by Peter Michael Miles – 29th October 2010

During the Edinburgh International Book Festival, an international delegation came to Edinburgh under the auspices of the British Council ‘Bookcase’ programme. The group comprised cultural practitioners from all over the world; festival directors, programmers, writers, facilitators and, as well as a packed daily programme of book festival events, they took time to lunch in several literary institutions across the city. We were delighted to co-host a lunch here at the library in collaboration with our close neighbours, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, on Saturday 21 August.

Our Robyn and Donald Smith, director of the Storytelling Centre, both gave welcomes and explanations to our international visitors about our respective organisations, programmes and activities, and as a result of mentioning our love of all things social media, Canan Marasligil, Project Manager of the Benelux Region for the British Council invited me (Peggy) to Brussels to talk to the Benelux Innovators group about how we engage with audiences using social media channels. I went just last week to take part in a meeting in the wonderful Bozar on the broader topic of ‘engaging with audiences’ (a topic close to the hearts of programmers and communications people everywhere!) and spoke alongside Sophie Hayles, from the Whitechapel Gallery in London and Duncan Speakman – artist, theatre maker and creator of subtlemob.

Sophie was really interesting on the particular concerns of drawing local audiences to your space, pertinent to the Whitechapel Gallery in light of its original didactic and site-specific mission to ‘bring great art to the people of the East End of London’, and on international partnerships. Duncan meanwhile explained how he has used the concept of a subtlemob to bring audiences into a shared, public experience using music and dialogue to ‘make films without cameras’. I talked about all of you, our loyal readers, who read our blog and share our tweets and like our Facebook stuff, you who make communicating poetry such a pleasurable dialogue, and hardly like work at all. We projected images of the Scottish Poetry Library, inside and out, for all the Benelux network to see: for that moment, and in continued dialogue, the Scottish Poetry Library spreads its work to Brussels, the Netherlands and Luxembourg!

It’s excellent to be a part of this network, and I’m very grateful to Canan and the British Council for the invitation; it was invaluable to meet others from the sector outside of Scotland who are engaging with their audiences and each other about how to communicate – and listen – effectively.  Staying on for the remainder of the weekend, I had a fabulous time exploring Brussels. I particularly enjoyed visiting the exhibitions and cinematek at Bozar, the music in St Gery, the superb English language bookshop on Wolfengracht (which has a great poetry selection!) and felt it would’ve been culturally remiss not to sample the local fare… I’ll leave the moules, beers, waffles and chocolates for another time…

Our friends down the close at BBC Radio Scotland thought you might like to know about an upcoming special programme to mark 100 years since the birth of Norman MacCaig.  It will focus specifically on his love of Assynt, and the way that this landscape influenced his poetry.  Here’s the blurb below, and here’s the BBC Radio Scotland website.

The poet, Norman MacCaig, was born 100 years ago this November.  Much of his poetry celebrates the landscape of Assynt in the North West Highlands.  In a special programme, Mark Stephen explores the mountains, lochs and beaches of Assynt through the poetry of MacCaig, and discovers why this ancient landscape is so special.  That’s ‘Norman MacCaig’s Assynt’ on Out of Doors on Saturday 6th November from 7am, and again on Sunday 7th at 11am on BBC Radio Scotland.

“A haiku . . . is a hand beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean. It is a way of returning to nature, to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature…’

What is the allure of the Japanese aesthetic in art and literature? On the cusp between the brazier season and the sunken hearth season, we were excited and delighted to welcome novelist and haiku poet Alan Spence and Japanese storyteller Mio Shapley to the library on a chilly October evening to open a window onto Japanese culture, to share some haiku and to sample the enticing pleasures of chanoyu (茶の湯), ‘the Way of Tea’, one of three events we’re hosting as part of the part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.

Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, was on hand to question Alan about his own fascination with Japan; Alan is no stranger to the library, having curated our Best Scottish Poems selection in 2007 and he was engaging on the Zen influence Japanese art forms bring to his own work. He read some of his own haiku – his latest collection of haiku and tanka, Morning glory, illustrated by Elizabeth Blackadder, is a firm favourite on our shelves and in our shop – including his translations of Japanese Haiku poet Issa into Glaswegian dialect from his book Glasgow Zen. He illuminated many surprising affinities between Glasgow, Scottish poets and Zen.

Mio was joined by Rumi and Aki, all in kimonos, to conduct the tea ceremony. They served powdered green tea and sweets while Mio opened and closed with a sung poem, and told a story of the clumsy tea-server and the Master’s judgement, of how the clumsy student sneezed powdered green tea everywhere! Thankfully there were no sneezes at last night’s ceremony! Both the haiku and the tea ceremony depend on focus and concentration: the white space of the page around 3 lines of poetry, the silence surrounding the tea ceremony. One attendee remarked upon the ‘Gracefulness, humanity, humility and humour’ of the evening, and another especially enjoyed the ‘marvellous combination of two performers nourishing body, mind and spirit’… The audience, and Scottish Poetry Library staff, went off into the evening with refreshed palates, occasioned by the poetry and the tea both!

If you couldn’t make it, don’t forget about our other festival events, happening on Thursday and Saturday:

The Road North: Ken Cockburn & Alec Finlay | Thursday 28 October, 7.30pm | £7/5

‘Ten years ago, living by The Meadows with their gean blossom walks, I dreamt up a project, to take Bashō’s Oku-no-Hosomichi as a routemaster for Scotland, traveling as he and Sora had, from the capital, Edina for Edo, on the road north to the Western Isles. And now it’s begun.’ Join us for more insight into Alec and Ken’s Bashō-inspired adventures. Tea & whisky served.

W N Herbert: Chinese Wayfaring | Saturday 30 October, 3pm | £7/5

Poet and indefatigable traveller W N Herbert has walked the Wall and followed the Silk Road and is currently working with eminent Chinese poet, Yang Lian, on a book of translations from contemporary Chinese poetry. An illuminating hour in the company of a consummate storyteller and inventive poet.

If you get plugged into this week’s podcast, in which Ryan chats to storyteller Judy Paterson, you’ll find out that the Scottish International Storytelling Festival is in full swing. Running from Friday 22 – Sunday 31 October, the theme for this year’s annual celebration of traditional and contemporary storytelling is Eastern Routes: Authentic Voices.

Bringing together world-class storytellers, academics and educators from Sweden, Norway India, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan with some of Scotland’s finest wordsmiths in a 10-day celebration of ancient and contemporary oral traditions from East and West, we’re particularly excited to be involved here at the Scottish Poetry Library, with three events happening in our bookish glasshouse.

TONIGHT! We have great pleasure in welcoming Alan Spence and Mio Shapley; novelist and haiku poet Alan will discuss the allure of the Japanese aesthetic in art and literature, followed by an enticing sample of the pleasures of the tea ceremony with Japanese storyteller Mio Shapley.

On Thursday evening (28th), we’ll learn more about the Road North, a project by poet Ken Cockburn and artist and collaborator Alec Finlay. ‘Ten years ago, living by The Meadows with their gean blossom walks, I dreamt up a project, to take Bashō’s Oku-no-Hosomichi as a routemaster for Scotland, traveling as he and Sora had, from the capital, Edina for Edo, on the road north to the Western Isles. And now it’s begun.’ Come for the story, stay for the whisky…

And on Saturday 30th, we’ll be joined by poet and indefatigable traveller W N Herbert, who has walked the Wall and followed the Silk Road and is currently working with eminent Chinese poet, Yang Lian, on a book of translations from contemporary Chinese poetry. This promises to be an illuminating hour in the company of a consummate storyteller and inventive poet.

There are loads of events happening at the Scottish Storytelling Centre – another award-winning creation of Malcolm Fraser Architects – further up the Royal Mile; follow this link to download the whole festival programme in pdf.

The Scottish poet Norman MacCaig was born 100 years ago next month. The remote north-west Highland community of Assynt is preparing to mark the centenary with a week-long celebration of his poetry, from 5-13 November 2010, including talks, readings, film showings, art exhibitions, guided walks and ceilidhs. Performers include Liz Lochhead, Alan Taylor, Alan Riach, Sandy Moffat and Wendy Stewart.

Norman MacCaig, who died in 1996, spent many of the summers of his adult life in Assynt, taking his family there during his long holidays as an Edinburgh school teacher. He wrote much of his best loved poetry inspired by Assynt, which he called ‘this most beautiful corner of the land’ in his long poem ‘A Man in Assynt’.

Mandy Haggith, who is co-ordinating the celebration for local community arts organisation Top Left Corner, said, ‘Norman MacCaig’s poems about the people and landscape of Assynt are variously witty, philosophical and moving. Whether it’s with a mountain like an anvil, a lochan like a stained glass window, or a toad that looks like a purse, his poetry helps us to see the land and nature in a new and fresh way.’

The week will also celebrate new poetry inspired by MacCaig and Assynt, written by children and adults. Some of the 279 new poems written for the Norman MacCaig Poetry Competition, in particular the winners, will be made public on 9 November, when the competition judges, Alan Riach (poet and professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University) and Alexander Moffat (former head of the Glasgow School of Art), will present their insights into MacCaig’s place in Scottish culture.

Poems by local school children are being displayed around Assynt. Poet Kenneth Steven recently visited Lochinver Primary School, Stoer Primary School and Ullapool High School to introduce the children to the poetry of MacCaig and to inspire them to write poems of their own. Kenneth said of the children, ‘They were just brilliant, they really were. It is a privilege to work with children who have been born into this landscape, to open a door to them and draw their own words through it.’

Mandy Haggith said, ‘The 44 local children who have written poems for the celebration have done a marvellous job of proving that Assynt is still an inspirational place for new poetry. This is one of the most exciting aspects of the celebration. We’re not just looking back to the past but also giving space to a new generation of writers. MacCaig said in his poem ‘Rowan berries’, “I’ll be /that fine thing, an ancestor.”  And so he is.’

Many people in Assynt remember MacCaig fondly. One of those, Wilma Mackay, from Inverkirkaig, said ‘I think it is really good that we are making sure the younger generation know about Norman’s poetry. I think he’d be pleased to be remembered by Assynt people – he really loved this place.’

Artists are also taking part in the celebration through an exhibition of art by local people at the Leisure Centre in Lochinver (5-13 November) and an exhibition at An Talla Solais in Ullapool (3-21 November), entitled Response 2: Norman MacCaig, of artworks responding to his poems.

For more information contact Mandy Haggith, hag@topleftcorner.org

Thanks to Hi-Arts, the Andrew Tannahill Trust for the Furtherance of Scottish Literature, the Highland Culture Programme, Polygon books and our local Highland Councillors for financial support.

You can read MacCaig’s poem ‘Aunt Julia‘ in our Reading Room, chosen by Anna Gibson as her classic poem choice.

J.O. Morgan on the titles he’d like to see back in print.

Four books by Ted Hughes. Each an example of his interest in artistic collaboration, of different ways to present a book, of books that have a particular singular theme – not necessarily narrative in form. The pictures in these books are not presented as a mere aid to the richness of Hughes’s wording, nor to make the poetry more accessible to younger readers. On each the phrase is  “drawings by” not illustrations. The pictures are distinct within themselves. Their artistry to match in pen and paint what Hughes achieves in language.

1963 – the earth-owl and other moon-people
Six years before Buzz & Neil set their prints into the lunar dust, Hughes showed the terrors that might await them. The fluctuating length of lines and simplicity of the rhymes fit perfectly the playfulness; as intriguingly inventive in form as the host of hostilities the moonscape provides. On the moon, even numbers can kill. R.A.Brandt provides the drawings. They are hazy. Shadowy. Like bark rubbings. A specific indistinctness that allows the horror depicted to complete itself within the viewer’s mind.

1978 – Cave Birds (an alchemical cave drama)
The foot-long format of this book suggests why it received no reprint. On the left of each double page: a poem, as rich in death and viscera as ‘Crow’. On the right: an ink drawing by Leonard Baskin, as scratchily feathered and bloated as the drawing for ‘Crow’. The similarity of form and execution is clear, though the story within: less so. Does each picture match each poem? Sometimes it would seem: no. As though two separate trains of thought had come together inone book, both offered up for careful vivisection.

1984 – What Is The Truth?
That same big-page format. The story:  God and his Son descend by night to the hill top of a rural village, to summon souls from sleep and hear of creatures that the villagers have encountered. The farmer’s soul sings of partridges to be shot, the farmer’s son of his tamed badger, Bess. Chalk and charcoal drawings by R.J. Lloyd intermingle with the text; busy imagery, space-filling; many show the bright circle of the moon. The songs are long, are stories in themselves. The book’s question will be answered by its end.

1986 – Flowers and Insects (Some Birds and a Pair of Spiders)
The most conventional of the four books. Individual poems with a naturalistic bent. With here and there a watercolour by Leonard Baskin; impressionistic plants, sharply detailed beasts. A deft examination of minute complexity in living things. These works exemplify how poetry need not merely be collective, how poetry need not merely be words. If only they were back on the shelves – they wouldn’t linger there for long.

J. O. Morgan’s book-length narrative poem, Natural Mechanical (CB Editions, 2008) won the Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection Prize. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, Issue 6.