Fancy working at the wonderful Robert Burns Birthplace Museum? This from Nat Edwards, director.

~

We are currently recruiting for a new Learning Manager at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, to replace Alison Burke, who is leaving us for pastures new (well, castles old, to be precise) in the North East.

This is a great opportunity for someone to help shape our learning and public programmes; to build on the excellent work already done by Alison and her team in establishing an education service at the museum; to develop new audiences and particularly further develop its potential as a centre for Scots literature, culture and language as well as a cultural hub within the community.

More about the job here: http://www.nts.org.uk/Vacancies/250/

Rebecca Sharp. Photo by Stephanie de Leng

Rebecca Sharp is a writer working in performance, poetry and installation.

With her background as a playwright, she has had work professionally produced in her native Glasgow, New York City and Liverpool. In order to fully explore her interests as an artist, she now creates cross-disciplinary performances and installations involving text, sound and visuals. She often collaborates with other artists in achieving these aims.

Rebecca also plays and composes for the lever (Celtic) harp, which she has played for over fifteen years. She performs original compositions with spoken-word and also writes for other instruments, when scoring for theatre and film projects. Her harp and spoken-word work can best be described as modern fairytales, interweaving contemporary, often urban imagery with magical imaginings.

Currently based in Liverpool UK, Rebecca frequently performs at venues across the city, also travelling for performances and projects throughout the UK and beyond. We’re delighted to have her guest blogging about finding new and unusual ways to ‘use’ poetry.

Growing up in Glasgow, I spent a lot of time taking myself off to see cutting-edge, multi-media performances at places like Tramway, CCA and the Arches.  I remember an electronic opera at Tramway when I was about 14, going to talks at the CCA before I really knew what they were talking about, then as an undergraduate (studying Theatre at Glasgow), working front-of-house at all three at various times along the way.  I remember Goat Island and Forced Entertainment at CCA, Laurie Anderson at Tramway, Taylor Mac at the Arches and there were many more.  My first two plays were at the Arches (Last Child in 2001 and Danger: Hollow Sidewalk in 2006, both directed by Neil Doherty).  So it’s no huge surprise that now as a writer myself, I’m always playing with new and unexpected ways to create and present poetry and text.

Last year I collaborated with textile artist Eva Fulinova (Czech, based in Birmingham).  I had come across her amazing smocked silk work during one of my epic browsing sessions on the craft site Etsy (although Eva now sells from bigcartel – follow the link below).  I contacted her initially to commission a necklace for my wedding, then the more we communicated, the more I realised that we had shared artistic interests, so I suggested a collaboration.

Fathoming : setting poetry to silk 

Fathoming is a triptych of poems worked into individual smocked silk necklaces, each of unique design.  The process of creating the series was reciprocal: I wrote the poems with our final outcome in mind, following discussions with Eva.  I was inspired by the very process of intricate smocking and embellishment and wanted to capture that in the poems.  In turn, Eva designed and crafted each piece to reflect the structure, content and mood of each poem.

There is a thread of a story that runs through the pieces: two voices separated by time and the sea; the promise of a return perhaps never fulfilled; echoes of Penelope at her loom, waiting for Odysseus.  Eva puts it beautifully:  “The story speaks to me because I too waited long years to be with my love, landlocked and relying on messages darting across the sea… Can you hope to fathom or sway another’s heart when all you have are written words, so easily misplaced along the way or misunderstood?”

The Locker. Photo © Eva Fulinova

The first piece is called The Locker.  In it the first/‘her’ voice is heard, reminiscing and determined to call the other one home.  Eva dyed the strip of fabric with the text using an adapted itajime shibori technique to create three floating ‘sheets’ of paper. The honeycomb steadying the wavy pleats around the bag and sparkling with beads of honey is a reference to the ‘map of bees’ in the poem.

The Reminder. Photo © Eva Fulinova

The second piece is called The Reminder and bridges the other two like the voice of a narrator.  Eva dyed the silk in a colour that resembles faded pages of an old book or the ‘shades of wheat’ in the text.  She smocked it with indigo-dyed thread representing the sea as it enfolds the land.  The red thread of the story, the ‘blood-work’ of the poem, is visible on the back of the necklace. The toggle is made with jasper stones as red as broken pieces of sealing wax.

The Token. Photo © Eva Fulinova

The third piece is called The Token. It is a fragmented echo of the distant, absent voice. It is also a code and an astrolabe, a compass with ‘his’ words replacing the North, South, East and West for the waiting companion. Orbiting the chain is a mother-of-pearl moon (moon being a key image in the poem).  The words are set among the pleats in a pattern; the beads around the inner circle can be positioned to point in different directions and hopefully unlock the meaning of the cryptic message.

The pieces are available to see and order online, with the complete poems.

http://tinctory.blogspot.com/p/fathoming-setting-poetry-to-silk.html

Also last year, I made The Ballad of Juniper Davy and Sonny Lumière.   The Ballad is a sequence of poems that I wrote as artist-in-residence with Metal Liverpool, based at and inspired by the historic Edge Hill Railway Station.  I also wrote the musical score and – in collaboration with Liverpool-based visual artist Elizabeth Willow – presented it as a site-specific promenade performance at the Station in May 2010.

The poems were performed by actors – although we worked hard to remove almost all traces of ‘acting’.  It was an incredibly delicate balancing act, between delivering the poems in such a way as to make the most of the words, while at the same time admitting that this was a performance, with a necessary degree of characterisation and theatricality that we were careful not to neglect.

At the same time as we were rehearsing, there had coincidentally been two other recent examples of (successfully) putting poetry on stage – Fiona Shaw’s version of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land and Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, adapted by Linda Marlowe at The Assembly Rooms (also a timely article in the Guardian).   I spent considerable time deliberating issues such as to what extent punctuation, line-breaks and structure, when agonised over on the page, should be made audible (or visible!) in performance.  And how to do this?  Thankfully, I’ve never been all that interested in naturalism.  However, I was also anxious to make sure we body-swerved some of the common pitfalls, such as accidentally slipping into mime, stilted recitation or the opposite – over-acting in the face of a ‘difficult’ text.

The Ballad of Juniper Davy and Sonny Lumière. Photo Mark McNulty

I was lucky to be working with some excellent performers (Adam Millington and Laura Powers-del Arco) who were up for the adventure, as well as a host of advisors (‘outside eye’, director Neil Doherty; lighting and sound designer Joe Stathers-Tracey; Elizabeth Willow).  In the end, it had a lot to do with eye contact and keeping your hands still: which words to move on and which to let fly by themselves.  We spent a long time blocking, painstakingly choreographing certain parts of the text to pin the words down physically, visually, where it mattered (and it always mattered).  And it worked – audiences commented that they were ‘transported’, ‘entranced’, were totally invested in the fiction of it, while at the same time being aware of the craft.  Some audience comments even quoted lines from the text, so we could rest assured it hadn’t been lost in translation.

The whole production and the book with CD were designed with astonishing attention to detail by Elizabeth Willow.  I now continue to perform The Ballad as a solo recital, reading the poems and playing extracts of the score on the clarsach.

http://www.theballad-juniperandsonny.blogspot.com

Last November I was invited to undertake a research and development residency at Lanternhouse in Ulverston, Cumbria.  I’ll be returning at the end of this year to resume work on my new project, Little Forks.  I started writing the text during last year’s residency, when I also met and started working with sound engineer/artist Fern Oxley.  The text is about a brother and sister, memory and place, layers of time, reverberation and repetition.  The final proposed work will hopefully come to fruition in Spring 2012, taking the form of a series of sound installations to be situated in Grizedale Forest, composed of manipulated recordings of the spoken text.

I also have a project in the pipeline with Scottish printmaker and artists book-maker Hugh Bryden.  A couple of years ago I wrote a poem ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ (published in Smoke magazine #59), referencing the ‘disappearing’ stage-trick invented by John Pepper.  I extended the poem into a longer text, which gradually started to look like a cross between a prose poem and a short play.  (I’m reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, which he describes as ‘a novel in dramatic form’, yet it reads much like a play-text.  But I see what he means.)  Now called The Tiger Act, I still hadn’t found a suitable home for the text, having staged a rehearsed reading of an early dramatised version in 2008.  I later met Hugh during a workshop at the Wordsworth Trust (through mutual friend, poet Andrew Forster) and started thinking about artists books.  Talking to Hugh and seeing more of his work (through his award-winning Roncadora Press) made me realise that the trickery and playfulness of the text would be best served in some manner of 3D object, through the complimentary artwork and construction techniques that Hugh devises for each project.

A common concern with poetry, or any stand-alone text, is often how to get it ‘out there‘, if the end result isn’t to be for example, a performance, film, or even heavily publicised book.  How to give a text a long and full life, how to bring it to life in the first place?  And for me this really isn’t a case of form over content or getting bums on seats (or books in hands).  In most cases I do start writing new work with a notion of the form it might finally take, sometimes the form is a key inspiration and reference point (a forest, a train station, silk); but beyond that, the content, the text itself must always stand its own ground.  And that’s certainly what I aim to address through all my work – a joining of ideas, art-forms and often artists, fizzing away at the edges of what you thought you set out to do, ending up with something possibly hybrid, hopefully magical and unashamedly in pursuit of its own truth.

Visit Rebecca’s website:  www.rebeccajoysharp.com

Just back from Berlin, where the Poetry Festival is continuing. The traditional World Poetry Night there is an amazing event I can’t imagine taking place in the UK – I wish I could. A huge audience assembles, each person with a paperback of German translations of the poems we’re to hear – and this year we each had dinky clip-on lights to enable the Maxim Gorki Theatre to be darkened. The poets read in German, Dutch, French, Korean, Arabic, English and Spanish, with a deft compère to keep the long night buoyant. And it was: clever shaping ensured that there were no longueurs – congratulations to Thomas Wohlfahrt, the Director, for pulling that off and for having the prescience to invite poets from the Arab world to bring their hopes and energies to the festival. Two highlights for me: the very modest presence of Silvio Rodriguez (I didn’t realise that he’s the most famous poet/folk-singer of Cuba), adored by the audience; and the virtuoso sound of Czech Iva Bittová, in her LBD and coral shoes, her voice and violin making Gertrude Stein’s words sound like a gypsy lament. The audience’s warm attention to all the poets was exemplary – a young audience in the main. On Saturday they were more vocal at the Arab spring session, where Deeb – the very engaging rapper from Cairo – got us shouting out to him at the end of an emotional evening.

I was also at the annual meeting of poetry festival directors, along with Eleanor Livingstone from StAnza. It was sunny out on the Pariser Platz but there was a cold wind blowing through the room: a combination of the general economic crisis and the change to right-wing governments is bad news for the arts. Jelka told us that it had just been announced that the culture budget in Slovenia is likely to be cut by 80%; there was a letter from Bas Kwakman, director of Rotterdam’s Poetry International – which has been running for over 40 years – asking for support from each of us to protest against cuts of 50%. Yet everyone had plans to continue, and the Slovenians had found ingenious ways of bringing people and poems together, from writing lines of poetry on zebra crossings, to getting elderly women in a care home to embroider them on cushion covers. The Chileans from Casagrande proposed to extend their poetry bombardment project: converting Scottish rain into a rain of poems is a very appealing notion. Back to cooler Edinburgh, re-energised, with a new T-shirt courtesy of kind Dragana from Belgrade. It has a green leaf and a line from Branko Miljković on it: ‘promeni svoju pesmu/change your poem’. Echoes of Rilke and a motto for editors!

~ Robyn

Very excited that the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme launched yesterday morning, and what finer setting than the Reference Library of Edinburgh’s Central Library. Amid bucks fizz and pastries and muckle folk, Nick Barley told us the highlights of this year’s programme, including, under the Legends of Modern Literature strand, celebrations of the centenaries of two poetry titans – Czesław Miłosz and Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean). The Poet Laureate and the Scots Makar – Carol Ann Duffy and Liz Lochhead – will both be there; Irish giants Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon, and Adam Zagajewski – regularly cited as Milosz’s successor to the crown of ‘Poland’s greatest living poet’ – will read in a solo slot, and also appear to talk about Miłosz alongside John Burnside, and Michal Pawel Markowski. Festival favourites Robin Robertson, Jackie Kay, Don Paterson and Wendy Cope return, and will be joined by new festival faces Rachael Boast, Will Eaves and Ryan Van Winkle, as well as Robert Bringhurst & David Harsent whose poetry will show the breadth of their other interests – Bringhurst for his love of good typography, and Harsent for his collaborations with the composer Harrison Birtwistle. Elsewhere poets Angus Peter Campbell and Gwyneth Lewis will share a stage to discuss their novels; Poems from Small Islands will showcase of the annual Crear poetry translation workshop, in association with us and Literature Across Frontiers, and we haven’t even seen the Unbound programme yet, though if it’s anything like last year’s debut, it promises heavenly evenings of spontaneity and fun in the Spiegeltent !

We were delighted to work with them again on their poetry strand, and there’s plenty for all poetry palates to enjoy. You can pick up a programme from the library, browse it online,  or download it here [pdf].  Roll on August!


A lovely creative writing course which our pals at Shetland Arts and Fiddle Frenzy wanted you to know about…

‘Creative Writing Summer School in Shetland – Sunday 7 to Sunday 14 August 2011

Poet Jen Hadfield is offering a week of writing workshops and one-to-ones during Shetland Arts’ summer fiddle school. You don’t need to be a fiddler to take part, but if you like folk music, you’ll thrive in this atmosphere: as a participant in the writing summer school, you can still attend the fiddle concerts, and the cultural trips to contemporary craft-workers, natural, historical and archeological sites. Previous trips have included visits to a working salmon farm and the studio of a contemporary textile artist, days in the islands of Whalsay and Yell; and there are further opportunities to drop into workshops on painting and Fair Isle knitting. Open to writers of all levels of confidence.

Contact Shetland Arts for more information: 01595 745 555,  carol.duncan@shetlandarts.org, or http://www.shetlandarts.org/events/fiddle-frenzy/

“Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

I was reminded of this pithy slapdown (attributed, apparently unprovably, to Samuel Johnson), when I encountered the following remark from Paul Sutton in a recent review in Stride:

“Frankly, it seems bizarre that such an established figure should lack originality; but then maybe it isn’t so unusual. With the proliferation of courses on the ‘craft’ of writing, simple originality – in terms of saying something new or different – is regarded as almost irrelevant. In fact, the very idea is often sneered at; certainly its absence seems no impediment.”

Speaking personally, I’ve never met any creative writer who sneered at originality, or dismissed its centrality as a creative aspiration, so I feel there might be a straw man dancing about here.  More critically though, to constrain originality as novelty – the merely “new or different” – seems to me to diminish it.  The danger of pursuing novelty is that you can end up reducing your art to gimmickry, where the froth of “this hasn’t been done before!” starts to override the more measured “is this worth doing?”  A novelty-based creative arms war can result in escalating attempts at outlandishness or shock value that themselves become a meta-cliché;  I sometimes wonder if, by establishing the idea that anything can be art, postmodernism has eaten the tastiest bits of the conceptual artist’s lunch before it got to the table…

Even if we aspire to “simple originality”, the one-offness of our work, we can never guarantee it.  It’s a rare poet, for example, who hasn’t had the experience of finding one of his or her own most prized images, metaphors or phrases employed similarly in an older, previously undiscovered poem by somebody else.  Saying “This poem is wholly novel” is like stating “No crows are white”;  no matter how many black crows you see, you haven’t proved your contention – and it only takes one white one, however freakishly rare, to knock it over entirely.

In being dubious about novelty, I’m not in any way defending the derivative, the unambitious or the mediocre;  I’m not wholly unsympathetic to the “sausage factory” criticisms sometimes made of creative writing MAs/MFAs and the publication-by-prize culture so prevalent in the US.  I value originality tremendously;  I simply don’t believe that it’s “simple”, or reducible to “saying something new and different”.

So what is originality, then?  At this point, I’ll give the cop-out answer that I generally offer to clothing shop assistants when they ask me what I’m looking for:  “I’m not sure, but I’ll hopefully know it when I see it.”  Some poems, even on the most timeworn themes (love, death, ageing…), achieve a quality – perhaps some combination of exactness, slant, particularity, intelligence and beauty? – that feels both deeply original and very hard to quantify or explain.

As an artist, I want to understand this mysterious quality;  I’d love to have a shortcut, a rule-of-thumb, a gimmick that would let me achieve it reliably. Isn’t it the very essence of originality, though, that that no rulebook or mechanistic process can generate it, and no shallow checklist can reliably detect it?  Acknowledging that we can’t teach originality is by no means the same thing as deeming it irrelevant or sneer-worthy;  if anything, it’s entirely the opposite, a reticence born of deep respect for something ineffable – that weft of emergent magic threading the warp of our conscious creative will.

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.

The Scottish Poetry Library is a national institution, lending library and centre for all things poetical. We have a whole building and it is full to the rafters with natural light and our collections of books, junior books, pamphlets and audio equipment (didn’t know we had all that? Ask at the front desk next time you’re in!) We run events – workshops, readings, talks – host exhibitions and lead reading groups (featuring croissants…) in the evenings and on weekends. We work in schools, in gardens, in care homes and hospitals, in other libraries and in museums; we work with people locally and we work with people internationally.

And we couldn’t do it without you.

It’s a little known fact that the library opens on a Saturday – and always has – not only for the public, but by the grace of our volunteers. Our volunteers assist at events, help maintain and manage our lending collection, and participate in projects that we wouldn’t be able to contemplate undertaking without them. Some volunteers have been with us on a regular basis for a long time and others have completed short-term placements. We appreciate greatly each and every hour and skill.

So in this the European Year of Volunteering, and on Volunteers’ Week 2011, we’d like to say a big thank you to those who choose or have chosen to spend some of their time with us. If it sounds like something you’d be interested in trying, please don’t hesitate to get in touch by emailing reception@spl.org.uk.