The best books to read in bed are those that you can put down quickly when your eyelids refuse to stay open. I can only read Denise Mina or Andrew Greig on holiday because it is alwaysso hard to stop. Episodic works are safer. Armchair travelling has its attractions but bedtime travelling is even better.

Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson has given me enormous pleasure, particularly since their horseback travels from August to November in 1773 take place in such atrocious weather. Boswell brightened my adolescence when I discovered the outrageous passages in his 1762-1763 London Journal, a copy of which appeared so innocently in a family bookcase. Boswell is the ideal tour manager to arrange Johnson’s gigs. It is fascinating to see how the intrepid pair take Highland chiefs to task for abandoning old clan customs.

Fictional discomfort works as well. I have been reading Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona in which the London government of 1751 has no such admiration for Highland ways. Ian Nimmo’s Walking with Murder chronicles his lifetime’s expeditions to walk out the details of David Balfour and Alan Breck’s breathless flight through Scotland. It is wonderful to read in bed how Nimmo does not take a tent on his first expedition but sleeps in the open under stars or rain.

Malcolm Lowry’s collected poems are by my bedside. He has fine lines like: ‘The lighthouse invites the storm and lights it.’ But these are diamonds in the mire. The good images in his poems do much better when they end up in his wonderful prose. I have been rereading his interlinked story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. The last of these stories brought me to love Lowry after undergraduate irritation with the protagonist of ‘Under the Volcano’ wasting himself on tequila when the world is full of untasted wines. ‘The Forest Path to the Spring’ is a lyrical celebration of the years spent with his second wife in a shack on the shore on the north side of the Vancouver in let. I saw the site of the shack in July during the conference to mark the centenary of Lowry’s birth. My conference contribution was to describe his influence on two films of Orcadian Margaret Tait. Her three beautifully produced volumes of poems are very special to me and I always keep one of them in the leaning tower beside my bed. She is sometimes witty and jaunty, sometimes emotionally intense. I have never been able to read aloud the last few lines of her lament for Allison, a sister-in-law who died young and unexpectedly. I wish she had written more.

Lovely Michael Romer is the owner of wine merchants Peter Green & Co of Marchmont, suppliers of alcoholic beverages to many Scottish Poetry Library events. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, issue 6.

We’re delighted to be one of the pitstops on Ryan Van Winkle’s virtual, world-wide book tour!

Here are all excellent blogs Ryan will be stopping by:

Stops Tour Date Blog

1 12 November 2010 leesmithwriter
2 14 November 2010 Our sweet old etcetera…
3 16 November 2010 G.P.S. Global Poetry System
4 18 November 2010 Surroundings – Rob A. Mackenzie’s blog
5 20 November 2010 Robin Grey
6 24 November 2010 Scottish Book Trust
7 26 November 2010 Flotsam
8 28 November 2010 Molossus
9 30 November 2010 Dan Meth

Our Ryan in Residence has been with us for two and a half years, splitting his time between bringing poetry and people all over the city (and beyond) together, and working on his own writing. We couldn’t be more chuffed for him that he won the Crashaw Prize, resulting in having his first collection, Tomorrow, We Will Live Here,  published by Salt. You can buy the book here. Ryan also programmes and hosts the excellent Golden Hour at the Forest Cafe here in Edinburgh, and presents our weekly podcast. Having interviewed a whole host of folk for that, we took more than usual glee in turning the spotlight on him with a few questions…

What’s your favorite food?

I chose my best friend and my favorite food when I was 11 and young enough to make pronouncements like that. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become wary of saying anything is my favourite, and I’m distrustful of anyone who would have an answer like that. Life, to me, is far more complicated. I don’t have a favourite city, a favourite colour, a favourite drink, and I reckon this is why I really want but can’t yet allow myself to get a tattoo.

So, in solidarity with my 11-year-old self, I’ll call my favorite food pizza. I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut which is famous for having, what some say, is the best pizza in America. New Yorkers always disagree. But New Yorkers don’t know anything.

And, I’m happy to say my best friend is still Mike Sanzone. A very fine artist indeed and someone I hope will occupy that ‘Best Friend’ throne for a long time to come.

Moustaches vs beards?

Now, for those of you who don’t know, I have recently shaved after a 15 year love-affair with the beard. When Magda at Snip and Sip cleaned me up I couldn’t imagine myself clean shaven so I asked her to leave the mustache. Anyway, I went on a blind date just after this and and the woman was slagging off a bearded guy nearby. I was utterly offended and said, “I’ll have you know, you are talking to a Beard.” Like that scene in The Jerk. So, I’d say – beard-core 4 lyfe!

Favourite hirsute poet?

Allen Ginsberg. Though, I’m not so familiar with the hairstyles of poets.

What turned you onto poetry?

I’m so freaking cliché! Like a lot of young, male, writers, my first poetic crush was on Charles Bukowski. He was honest and full of blood and spoke to me in a genuine way. That stuff made me think maybe I could do this, maybe I had something to say which could be said through poetry. It changed my opinion of what a poem was.

Of course, the problems with Bukowski are many. He’s a rubbish role-model and I’ve seen many young poets go too far into the gutter trying to emulate his life style. Second, he’s a d**k. There’s that poem where someone asks who his three favorite poets are and he replies “Charles Bukowski, Charles Bukowski and Charles Bukowski.” He really seems to have felt that there were no good poets around (read Raymond Carver’s poem about him, ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’). This is just wrong. And lazy. From the standpoint of trying to promote and encourage readers of poetry – he’s a real double edged sword and I think it is very unfortunate. Because he does turn people on to poetry, he’s great. However, because of his insulting, posturing, egocentric views, a lot of potential readers don’t read beyond him. Like with music — one poet leads to another and so you listen to, say, The Gaslight Anthem and that leads you back towards Bruce Springsteen, which leads you back to Bob Dylan which goes back to Woody Guthrie. Bukowski, annoyingly, only leads you to more Bukowski. And John Fante – who wasn’t a poet.

Luckily, I was curious enough and went to a book shop where I found Hayden Carruth’s Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey which I loved immediately for its title and later for its incomparable grace. This book, I think sealed the deal between myself and poetry and got me out of Bukowski’s dangerous, self-perpetuating, poetic orbit. It convinced me to read more.

How would you describe the Scottish Poetry Library to a stranger?

Tea and biscuits.

If you could invite any poets living or dead to a dinner party, which would you invite and why?

I think I’ll stick with the dead. If I open it up to the living – I’d probably just invite poets I already know and love and I’d sound all sycophantic.

So, let’s see – my dinner parties usually take 8 (though I’ve only got enough wine glasses for one and enough forks for six…)

I’d like to get Carver and Bukowski back together to live out Carver’s poem ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (An Evening With Charles Bukowski)‘. I’d keep Bukowski away from the ‘hard stuff’ though.

And I’d like to see Emily Dickinson in the mix as I’ve gotten a new found respect for her since visiting her house in Amherst last month. (Look out for the podcast – coming soon.) Basically, I always thought of her as kind of a reclusive weirdo but now I think she was just born ahead of her time, I think she was strong and determined and knew how she wanted her writing to be presented and how she wanted to exist in society and society and the literary world were not really ready for her. I think she’d be awesome.

I’d like to get Richard Brautigan over too because I’ve always had such a massive crush on his writing, his voice is lovely and I think he was great at hanging out. Here’s a favourite anecdote recounted by Keith Abbott:

“Just before dinner was served, Richard made a big show of putting on a Grateful Dead record. He said that he had been saving the record as a surprise for (Robert) Creeley. Bob nodded his thanks. When the first cut started Creeley brought his head up abruptly “This is my favourite cut on that record” he announced. Richard beamed happily. As Creeley listened to the song Richard told a story of all the obstacles that he had encountered during the day in his attempt to find this particular record for Bob. Content that he had made Creeley happy, Richard went back to the kitchen to attend to dinner. When the song was over, Creeley got up, went over to the stereo and, trying to play the cut again, raked the needle across the record, ruining it. “Uh-oh” he said …. At the sound of the record’s being ruined, Richard came rushing out of the kitchen and … going over to the stereo he brought out a second copy of the album from the stack alongside it …. “I’m, ready for Bob this time” he boasted. Then he went on to relate how Creeley had wrecked the very same album on a previous visit.” The song Creeley wanted to hear again – ‘Ripple’ by Robert Hunter. Anyway, let’s put Creeley at the dinner party too. It would be nice to see those guys hanging out again. I still get sad thinking about Brautigan’s suicide. I wish he didn’t.

And let’s have UA Fanthorpe over – because her poem ‘Atlas’ is masterful and I have a lot of questions to ask her about Love. Oh, oh – and can we invite H.D. ? I love her poems and, again, I think she was ahead of her time and I think it would be interesting to chat with her about how she got pigeon-holed as an ‘Imagist’ even after she outgrew that movement.

Lastly, I would love to have Etheridge Knight over. I’d cook a hell of a meal just to say thanks for his poem – ‘Feeling F**ked Up.’ I owe that man about a thousand good meals. Plus, based on his poems and performances, I think he’d be a wonderful person to speak to. Maybe he and Bukowski could trade tales about prison. I think he was funny and sensitive and sweet and incredibly talented. I couldn’t imagine anyone not getting along with him.

What do you miss most about Edinburgh when you’re gallivanting around the world?

What I miss the most, what always makes me happy to come home, are my friends and family at the Forest specifically and my friends in general. You get kind of used to walking around Edinburgh and saying hello and having chats with people on the street and I do miss that when I become a stranger.

Why leave when you can live in a place you can understand and that understands you?

Good question. For those who don’t know – that is a quote from Bill McKibbon and it opens up my collection Tomorrow, We Will Live Here (available at all fine book stores and petrol stations) and I guess the book itself is my answer.

But maybe that is me just trying to sound clever. The book can’t really answer that question because I can’t really answer that question though I think about it a lot and my work is focused on that problem. I often wonder why I left America which I did understand, which did understand me, where my family was, where everything I knew and was comfortable with was. I think I left because I didn’t like being comfortable, it seemed too easy and I probably wanted to challenge myself. And I think I thought an artist shouldn’t get too familiar, too at home in any one place.

And now, I’m perpetually talking about leaving Edinburgh. A city which, for all my criticisms of it, I understand and which understands me, where my friends and work, etc are. Where I feel utterly comfortable most of the time. In fact, I was just talking with Mikey Krumins today (in London) about moving here. He’d just moved to London from sunny New Zealand and neither of us could explain what it is inside of us that makes us want to depart someplace cosy for someplace harder, more difficult, more unforgiving, more ‘real’. I know the poet Kevin MacNeil has been dealing with this conundrum too — why leave? Read the book – tell me if you have the answer.

In your mind/ maybe you are…?

No fair – you’re quoting me! In my mind, I’m still 16 years old – and not in a good way.

Describe yourself as a superhero; a beverage; a town in America…? And why?

Spider-Man / Peter Parker – I feel more like Parker than Spider-Man. I mean, Parker’s life is always a mess. He’s perpetually distracted, exhausted, getting interrupted, ruining good relationships. Yeah, I can identify with that. And if and when I ever get any responsibility, no matter how small, I will say “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Thanks Stan Lee.

White wine, of course. – Because it doesn’t stain. And it makes me very, very happy.

Branford, CT — Because it is home. And when I think of the sea, it is Branford’s coast. And when I think of woods, I think of the woooded trails I ran in High School. And when think of houses – I think of the houses I grew up in, the attics and basements where I became myself.

What to your ear and eye is the finest poem ever written?

That is a totally insane question. The finest poem ever written is probably something I probably wouldn’t be able to appreciate if I saw it.

However, the first two poems I thought of – one right after the other – were:

EE Cummings – ‘Buffalo Bill’ — I love that “Jesus / he was a handsome man”, I love the shape, the space, the ‘onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat’

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Ezra Pound’s ‘Station of the Metro’ – I really dislike most of Pound’s work but that brevity, that hint of of darkness, I like that.

But these are probably more influential than ‘finest poem ever written’. I think I object to the word ‘fine’. I don’t think I like ‘fine’ poetry. Boring people are ‘fine’. Your girlfriend, when she is angry with you, is ‘fine’. A pair of Cartier earrings are ‘fine’. Poetry should be more than fine.

What’s next for Ryan Van Winkle?

Let’s just get through this year, ok?

There are about 800 poems in the published work of Norman MacCaig of which some 130-140 have a main focus on the Assynt landscape or people.

Their significance appears to outweigh the numeric proportion, partly because of when they were written (most were from the 1960s onwards when, in my view, his best work was produced) but mainly because of their direct expression and strong personal commitment.

Where did this special quality in his work come from? Why Assynt? It’s a beautiful place with nice people in it, but does that fully explain the depth of the personal and poetic engagement? Was his poetic talent all that he brought there?

The MacCaigs first went to Assynt in 1947, and a lengthy sequence of summer visits followed. Getting to know the place and the people intimately took time. The landscapes were not explored by my father as a romantic Wordsworthian rambler. He was an enthusiastic and bloodthirsty fisherman and, although he loved walking through the Assynt landscape, it was the fishing that got him out of his chair. His growing knowledge of the land can be linked to the widening exploration of the fishing possibilities that we undertook when I was young. Communication with a wide range of local people also took some years to build up, partly because we (and others) did not have a car in the early times and the community was widespread. There is little doubt that, for him, the landscape and the community were aspects of a singular thing and the development of his many local friendships was as important and (in the poetic sense) meaningful as the landscape.

The poetic response to Assynt was not immediate. A few poems were written in the 1950s but significant numbers did not appear until he had been an annual visitor for over 15 years. They then grew in frequency and, when age and infirmity took over and he could no longer go there, more and more of his work drew on Assynt. Time was usually needed: apparently minor events become poems decades later. The response to Assynt was not a facilely descriptive one.

What he mainly brought to Assynt, in my perception, was the impact of his childhood holidays in Scalpay, Harris, the birthplace of his mother. These happy visits made an indelible impression on him, of the place and, especially, of the people and his own heritage. His Scalpay poems are not very numerous, but they are among his finest.

Despite being family and a welcome guest, he was an English speaker and, for lack of a softer word, an outsider. Without implying the least unhappiness, I believe this stayed with him all his life, as profound childhood impressions do, and gave him a longing for acceptance in the Assynt community that could never be fully assuaged by the reality of the friendships he found there. This was visible in company. In Edinburgh social gatherings he was normally centre stage, where he tended to dictate the topics of conversation and generally take charge. In Assynt he was no less gregarious, but he became more of a listener and he looked up to the company in a way that would have been inconceivable elsewhere.

In selecting Assynt, he chose well. A more fertile soil for planting the seeds that had been germinating since childhood could not have found and the fruit was many great poems. Although the Scalpay visits were of fundamental importance, his exploration of the highlands as a young man should not be forgotten. He went for lengthy, and extremely intrepid, cycling and camping holidays with friends, covering virtually everywhere, both on and off road, on a single gear bicycle. Many of the poems about Scottish places other than Assynt must come from experiences in this period.

Following the war and the appearance of young children he drew on this knowledge of Scotland when selecting a place for family holidays. Achmelvich was chosen. It was ideal for children and good for fishing, but other places will have suited in such ways. He said that a major factor in the choice was a similarity in the Assynt coastal landscape to Scalpay and the east of Harris. He was, in a sense, seeking his roots. Scalpay itself would have been unthinkable by this time – too minister-ridden and too teetotal.

In selecting Assynt, he chose well. A more fertile soil for planting the seeds that had been germinating since childhood could not have found and the fruit was many great poems. It brought him happiness, but without stultifying contentment. He had to ‘woo the mountain, till I know the meaning of the meaning, no less’ a process that kept him writing Assynt poems into his eighties, with no loss of freshness.

– Ewen McCaig

This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, issue 7

Don’t forgot to check out our MacCaig centenary celebrations, events happening all week in Assynt curated by Top Left Corner, and to have a listen to the first of two MacCaig-inspired podcasts, the first featuring Andrew Greig.

Word Express, Istanbul

November 5, 2010


This time last week I was on my way to Istanbul, to join in the events that formally closed Literature Across Frontiers‘ (LAF) brilliant Word Express project. The network of friendships and translation won’t close down though: that’s the enduring, unquantifiable effect of such projects. I saw the rose-pink station where the Orient Express used to pull in, and where many writers disembarked in 2009. Poets who had been on SPL/LAF workshop at Crear this summer were reunited; it was a great pleasure to see Efe Duran and Gokçenur Ç on their home ground and to participate in the face-to-face poetry event they organised at the Nazim Hikmet café. Our Reader in Residence Ryan Van Winkle was there too, recording poets for our podcast series as we crossed the Bosphorous (İstanbul Boğazı) on a sunny afternoon, sipping çay. I chaired a panel discussion on minority languages at the Istanbul Book Fair, which ended with a poem in Welsh and a song in Basque. As Iain Crichton Smith wrote, ‘Like a rainbow, like crayons, spectrum of beautiful languages’.

– Robyn

Fishing for Poetry

November 4, 2010

Norman MacCaig (1910-96), one of the greatest poets of his generation, was an expert fly-fisher. His favourite loch, the Loch of the Green Corrie, lies high up in the mountains of Assynt in the far north-west of Scotland. His favourite fiddle player (and occasional on-stage collaborator) was Shetland maestro Aly Bain, Aly also being, in Yeats’s phrase, “a lad with a stout fly-fisher’s wrist”.

Yet another keen fisherman and a great admirer of MacCaig’s poetry is Billy Connolly, an old pal of Aly’s, while poet and novelist Andrew Greig, charged by MacCaig shortly before his death with an in memoriam foray to the Loch of the Green Corrie, had gone there and fulfilled his task or at least caught a book, “At The Loch Of The Green Corrie”, published by Quercus earlier this year.

In Fishing for Poetry, produced by Douglas Eadie and directed by Mike Alexander of Glasgow-based Pelicula Films, Bain, Connolly and Greig celebrate the November 14 centenary of MacCaig’s birth with a light-hearted journey from the poet’s native Edinburgh to his beloved Assynt and the long climb to the Loch of the Green Corrie with its elusive trout.

Friends and fellow poets – including Jackie Kay, Liz Lochhead, Douglas Dunn, Alasdair Gray, Seamus Heaney, Tom Leonard and Aonghas MacNeacail – also feature with anecdotes, tributes and readings of their choice of MacCaig’s finest poems. MacCaig himself appears in eloquent archive footage from Mike Alexander’s 1976 portrait of the poet, “A Man In My Position”.

BBC2 Scotland, Monday, November 8, 9pm. | BBC4 network, Thursday, November 18, 9pm. Full programme info: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00vtxh2

Hark, writer pals!

Moniack Mhor – The Jessie Kesson Fellowship

1st– 27th March 2011

JOB TITLE – WRITER IN RESIDENCE

LOCATION – MONIACK MHOR WRITERS’ CENTRE

JOB DESCRIPTION – Moniack Mhor Writers’ Centre are offering a unique opportunity for a published fiction writer to spend a month at the centre to dedicate time developing their own work.  The writer in residence will work a minimum of two sessions a week with the local community by sharing their expertise through workshops in schools.  The writer will be expected to participate in a literary evening event either as part of a ceilidh setting or at a designated local venue.

Moniack Mhor is a residential facility dedicated to the furtherance of literature in Scotland and beyond, it runs creative writing courses in partnership with the Arvon Foundation.

SALARY – £350 stipend per week and travel expenses.

DEADLINE – 29th November 2011

CONTACT DETAILS – Tel: 01463 741675                        moniackmhor@arvonfoundation.org