February 25, 2011

Earthquakes were something we grew up with in New Zealand as a matter of course. Earthquake drill: crawling under a desk, standing in a doorway where the building was reinforced. One of my best friend’s father was a distinguished geophysicist: we knew we were safe when he was around, as although he studied them, he never coincided with a bad quake. Writers who use earthquakes as a metaphor may never have felt one: the ominous prelude, the rumbling after-shock. I hated being upstairs during an earthquake, even in our flexible old wooden house. As things tilted, you felt a little intimation of mortality, of crushing loss.

This is by way of saying thank you to everyone who has so kindly enquired about my family and friends: those dear to me in Christchurch have been spared, for which I am profoundly grateful.

New Zealand-Scottish links are strong and not only personal, of course. As I write, there’s a conference at the South Island University of Otago at which Glasgow academic and poet Alan Riach is giving a paper on ‘Modern Scottish Poetry and Paintings: Arts of Resistance’. And at the SPL we are expecting a fresh consignment of New Zealand poetry books any day.

For the poetry of earthquakes, I’m turning back to a blog post that came out of Christchurch’s experience in September last year, which catches some of the terror and the slow unfolding of catastrophe. Our thoughts are with those bereft citizens of Christchurch and beyond.


Day 1

it mobs us
leaves us

we are aghast and naked in the doorway
clutching each other, where’s the dog?
we are flying for the children, calling
their names, we are the woman up to her neck
in it, scrabbling for a handhold, calling —
the child behind her on the path stay there
the one she’s rushing to collect stay there
we are the boy running to the grandfather, calling —
we are the family watching the capsizing house

stay               there

earth in our ears
earth in our eyes
earth in our hair

Mary McCallum

~ Robyn

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is a multi-destination visitor attraction comprising of historic sites and a new purpose-built museum, housing the Robert Burns Birthplace Collection.  As Curator of the museum, you will research, manage and develop the Birthplace collection; ensure excellent standards of access to the collection through providing curatorial support for the interpretation, exhibition, learning and public programmes; deal with collections enquiries and providing access for researchers; and support the museum’s wider role as a centre for public understanding of Robert Burns.

This is an exceptional opportunity for a self-motivated curator. You will have a good working knowledge of best practice in museum access and interpretation, as well as subject knowledge of at least one relevant area of literature, Scottish history or culture (e.g. Bachelor’s degree or equivalent practical collections-based research experience). You will also have demonstrable experience of collections management and access, based on working in a museum, archive or library environment. You will have excellent inter-personal skills, be well-organised and able to co-ordinate and prioritise multiple activities. You will also have sound IT skills, including use of databases and research & presentation tools.

For full job details and information about how to apply, go to and click on the “Vacancies” tab.  Closing date 3 March 2011. Interviews are likely to take place at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum on 22 or 23 March 2011. Visit us at


There’s a happy coincidence between ‘what we’re talking about over tea’ and ‘what’s happening this week’:  the long-anticipated meeting of minds, lyrics and poetry that is this Friday’s event featuring singer songwriter Alasdair Roberts and award-winning poet Robin Robertson.

With only days to go, you can get your hands on tickets by getting in touch with reception (details bel0w) or you can take your chance on our twitter giveaway – retweet this to be in with a chance to win. We’ll have copies of Robin Robertson’s Costa Poetry Award, Forward Poetry Prize and TS Eliot Prize shortlisted The Wrecking Light for sale, as well as some copies of his previous collection, Swithering (also shortlisted for the TS Eliot and winner of the Forward Poetry Prize 2006).

Details via Let’s Get Lyrical:

We can’t wait for Friday 25 February, when singer songwriter Alasdair Roberts will share a stage for the first time with award-winning poet Robin Robertson in the beautiful setting of St Mark’s ArtSpace on Castle Terrace in Edinburgh. Alasdair and Robin first worked together on the track ‘The Leaving’ for the album Ballads of the Book, released by Chemikal Underground in 2007, but have never performed together on the same stage. It’s going to be an evening guaranteed to thrill the music lover as much as the poetry fan.

…whether you are a music monkey or a poetry piranha, this is going to be the event you want to get your teeth into.

Tickets are £9 / £7 conc. You can book in advance by mailing or phoning 0131 557 2876. Alternatively, any remaining tickets will be on the door on the 25th at St Marks ArtSpace, 7 Castle Terrace, Edinburgh. Event begins at 7pm. Booking strongly advised to avoid disappointment.


Launched last night at the Scottish Poetry Library, Amorous Greetings (Mariscat Press, 2010, £5) presents a selection of the amorous greetings sent by the poet Gael Turnbull to his wife Jill on her birthday, their wedding anniversary and on St. Valentine’s Day throughout their marriage. These were given in a variety of home-made formats and ‘in terms of’ all sorts of things, such as a gardening catalogue, a supermarket advertisement and even the Oxford English Dictionary.

Hamish Whyte and Jill Turnbull read from the new selection launched, appropriately, on St. Valentine’s Day. Also reading poems inspired by Gael Turnbull at last night’s event were Christine De Luca, Jim C Wilson, Diana Hendry and Stewart Conn, who presented his in the form of a paper aeroplane.

In her introduction to the book, Jill says:

It will not be difficult to understand that these little poems, in hand-made cards, left propped up on the kitchen table for me to find in the morning, are very precious to me. So it is a poignant delight to see them in print. Thank you, Mariscat.

The Scottish Poetry is privileged to be exhibiting these original greetings (above) for a short time only – until the end of the month – and to be able to offer the pamphlet for sale. To reserve or buy a copy, please email, call 0131 557 2876 or drop by.


from Amorous Greetings:

In terms of a supermarket advertisement


When every day

is another


special offer.


by Gael Turnbull

Last week we ordered a tiny batch of badges. We mentioned them on Facebook and Twitter and, to our delight, the crowd called out for more! So we ordered another batch, and our postman brought them today!

One badge costs £1. Every penny helps the Scottish Poetry Library. If you’d like one, and can’t visit in person, you can send a cheque made out to Scottish Poetry Library. Let us know which one(s) you want. If ordering just one or two, please include a stamped self-addressed envelope. If you’d like more than 3, we’ll pop them in a jiffy and P&P will be £1.50 (might be more for deliveries outwith the UK). Just email Kay at for more info.

Poetry is making a real and very practical difference in the Camden area of London, where twice-monthly poetry events support Cold Weather Shelters, and Carol Ann Duffy is judging a contest in aid of the homeless. The winner will have a 20-page booklet published by Golders Green company Ward Wood Publishing, and this is a competition where nobody loses as we’ll all be helping those that need help. Every entry in the contest will help support a homeless person in North London, letting them come in from the cold.

The Lumen/Camden Poetry Competition is unusual as the entry fee per poem is just £2.50 to make it possible for everybody to have a try. The winner will also be selected on the basis of just one prizewinning poem (maximum length 40 lines), so you don’t have to submit the whole pamphlet for a chance of being published. If you want to submit more poems there are discounts, with 6 poems costing £10.

This is the first year for the Lumen/Camden Poetry Competition and it’s the initiative of poet Ruth O’Callaghan, founder and organiser of the Camden and Lumen Poetry Series. This popular project supports the homeless in the Cold Weather Shelters in the Camden and Kings Cross areas of London, and all income from the competition will go to support the same cause. None of the people involved in organising the competition will take any income from it, so it’s set to give a real boost to the amount donated by the project every year.

Poetry is really making a practical difference in helping the homeless thanks to Ruth’s tireless efforts and wonderful new initiatives. The Lumen/Camden Poetry Competition will not just benefit the people in the Cold Weather Shelters, but it will also help a poet to get their pamphlet into print. With entries invited from all over the world there will be poets of all standards joining in to help raise money for charity while competing for the prestigious prize of being selected by Carol Ann Duffy, patron of the Camden and Lumen Poetry Series.

The winner will receive 50 copies of their pamphlet to keep, sell, or give to friends. They will also be invited to read at the regular Lumen and Camden venues, if they can make it and would like to, and their pamphlets will also be offered for sale online and at the twice-monthly events. All money raised from pamphlet sales by the publishers and by the Camden and Lumen project will go to the Cold Weather Shelters.

The closing date is Monday 14 February 2011 (Monday coming), so best get your skates on.

The pamphlet will be published by Ward Wood Publishing, and full details on how to enter are on the website

You can enter by post by sending your poems and a cheque to Ruth O’Callaghan, or you can send the poems by post and pay by Paypal if you prefer. For international and other entries it’s possible to enter by using Paypal and then either posting the poems or sending them in an email. Regulars at the Camden and Lumen open mic events can hand their entry to Ruth, who will pass them on to Carol Ann Duffy. Full details are on the Ward Wood website.

Do join in and also post details about this competition on your own blogs and websites as the competition is likely to raise a substantial amount to help the homeless while also giving a poet a highly desirable prize.

More about entering the competition here:

Writers and would-be writers are always being advised to “do a blog” for PR purposes, as though this were some mechanistic process akin to a self-assessment tax return or a used-car listing in the local classifieds.

Despite being something of an IT geek, with an acknowledged tendency to engender new websites on the most tenuous of justifications, I’ve spend years signally failing to “do a blog.” (I’ve had a “Poem Of The Week” section on one of my sites for several years, which is built using blog software, but presumably this doesn’t count because it consists of – you guessed it – poems, rather than “blog”.)  I didn’t blog because I didn’t feel like I had anything in particular that I needed to blog about, and the Internet already contains a massive superfluity of dutiful and pointless daily vacuity.

However, I have a really rather clichéd tendency to dream up new projects over the Christmas holiday break, and this year was no exception.  I’ve always had a vague intention (ok, ok, “pathetic recurring fantasy”) of writing a reflective, subjective non-fiction book that waltzes along the tops of all my favourite soapboxes, and to this end I’ve been keeping a file of notes, links and ramblings that might be relevant.  Looking through this file in December, it dawned on me that the tantalisingly vaporous book might work just as well as a blog.  Shortly after Christmas, ‘that elusive clarity’ was born, and I became another tiny cog in the rolling juggernaut that is the blogosphere.

I’ll be honest:  as a poet, it’s pretty scary to commit to writing and publishing prose on a daily basis.  All kinds of anxieties swim up:  “Will I use up all my creativity on the blog, and have none left for poems?”  “Will people like my prose more than my poetry?”  “Am I doing this because I secretly want to run away from poems and ghostwrite salacious and lucrative celebrity memoirs instead?”  I’m finding out the answers to these questions as I go along.

So far, I seem to have enough creative oomph to go around, but this doesn’t surprise me:  if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past three years of weekly poem-posting, it’s that creativity is an abundant thing.  It’s been interesting to find that certain preoccupations tend to feature in both spheres simultaneously;  for example, when I first started the blog, I had a couple of posts about failure and a poem called How to fail in the same week. (Not much psychoanalysis required to understand that particular coincidence, methinks.)

As far as readership goes, prose-blogging has been a little bittersweet.  Poets will publicly acknowledge that contemporary poetry has a relatively “select” audience, but privately we like to fantasize that everyone secretly adores it, and that the world is always rushing off to read poems on the quiet behind the bike sheds.  Having both a poetry and a prose blog dispels this wishful imagining rather effectively;  based on my current brief experience, it seems to be an order of magnitude easier to get people to read prose blog posts than it is to get them to read poems.  (This could be because I’m a genius prose writer and/or a truly dire poet, I suppose, but somehow I don’t think the relative attention levels are much to do with the intrinsic quality of either blog).  Perversely, I think this supports the idea of providing prose commentaries as a way of helping new readers begin to explore poetry, but that’s a different soapbox…

Regarding the temptations of jumping ship and abandoning poetry for prose – well, I don’t think that was ever a very realistic fear.  I enjoy writing prose, and I think I’m benefiting in all kinds of ways from the discipline of daily blog posting, but the pleasure of writing poetry is quite different:  more concentrated, less dominated by conscious reasoning, more revelatory, less evanescent.  I don’t think I’d bother writing a blog if nobody read it (I could just keep a diary instead) – but I’d continue to write readerless poems “into the void”, because the act of reaching for them is so deliciously tantalising, the act of uncovering them so profoundly clarifying, the act of refining them so intrinsically satisfying.  Whatever the rewards of blogging, I don’t think they’ll ever quite match up to that.

Kona Macphee
is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland. This column is a monthly feature. Kona also facilitates the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries – keep an eye on our events page for further information on the next surgeries. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

Our Robyn gets Lyrical!

February 2, 2011

We’re delighted to be joining forces once again with the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature for their fifth reading campaign, Let’s Get Lyrical! We’ve got some corking events coming up, part of a fabulous, festive month-long lyrical extravaganza. You can find out more about the campaign, submit your story, look at the photos, listen to scintillating mini podcasts and get involved over at the Let’s Get Lyrical website.

To mark Let’s Get Lyrical, the Big Issue in Scotland has also been asking everyone from musicians and authors to politicians and Big Issue vendors to share their stories. Below is our Robyn’s response. There are many more stories available from your local vendor in this week’s issue.

People often ask ‘Who is your favourite poet?’, a question impossible to answer unless hedged around with all sorts of conditions. Now the Big Issue has asked me to name a favourite song as part of the Let’s Get Lyrical campaign, and I just can’t settle for one. It’s agonising, as snatches of tune and phrase crowd into my mind.  So I’m going to mention a dozen here in the hopes of clarifying a choice.

Songs are so wedded to when you heard them and who sings them. I’m still very attached to the songs of my adolescence, as who is not? In my case that means Simon & Garfunkel (‘Kathy’s Song’) , James Taylor (‘Fire and Rain’), Joni Mitchell (‘River’), Leonard Cohen (yes, ‘Suzanne’) – they’re all on my i-pod. Discovered for myself, and a great lyricist, Jacques Brel: ‘La chanson des Vieux Amants’. Further back, though, the joys of ‘I could have danced all night’ from My Fair Lady (Lerner & Lowe), and even further, hymns  and carols (singing communally, always a pleasure) – ‘In the deep midwinter’, Christina Rossetti.

Fast forward to meeting my husband, and the world of opera and art song and musicals all open up: I love Berlioz, ‘Le spectre de la rose’ sung by Régine Crespin, and Ella Fitzgerald singing the Gershwins’ ‘They can’t take that away from me’. Not forgetting the songs that make you laugh: from Pal Joey by Rodgers & Hart, ‘Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night…’; the songs that make you dance – ‘You can’t hurry love’ (The Supremes); the songs my daughter introduced me to (and I’ve stayed loyal though she’s moved on), like Avril Lavigne’s ‘Anything but Ordinary’ – what is it that makes Canada such a seed-bed for singer-songwriters? And finally, a song I scarcely understand, because it’s in Spanish: I first heard it in Almodovar’s film Habla con ella, sung by Caetano Veloso, ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’: the sound of the dove and the liquid syllables are mesmerising. Eliot said that poetry might reach you on an auditory level before it was understood, so too with this gorgeous song. But I’m still no closer to making my choice!

P.S. Apropos of the ‘Zip’ song: Gypsy Rose Lee, the intellectual burlesque star, never used zips, apparently – I learnt this from reading The February House by Sherill Tippins, the fascinating account of the house in Brooklyn where Lee had a room in 1940-41, along with W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Paul and Jane Bowles and Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten. The combination of such talents couldn’t have been invented.