What makes a poem original?  In my previous column, I referred to originality as something more than mere novelty – “perhaps some combination of exactness, particularity, intelligence and beauty”, “something ineffable” – which admittedly dodged around the tricky business of actually defining it.  These approximations are still my best working description of originality, but the fact that I can’t pin it down doesn’t prevent me from indulging in that fine artistic tradition of speculating about where it comes from.

Speaking as a writer, the poems that feel the most satisfyingly original, the most unmistakeably themselves, are the ones that are at least partly “given” – or, as I’ve described it elsewhere, poems whose writing provokes “the delicious sense that you’re not making something new so much as uncovering something that has always existed, word by tantalizing word.” Many poets have spoken of the subjectively remarkable, yet apparently commonplace, experience of having a poem seem to write itself; here, for example, is Michael Longley in a recent interview:

“[A poem is] a rare event […] It has a feeling of inevitability, as though the poem has always existed, and was just waiting to be discovered.”

A poem doesn’t write itself, of course, even if it sometimes feels that way – so where is this spine-tingling sense of otherness coming from?  The ancient world had its Muses, and religious people might still incline towards the notion of divine inspiration, but what’s a secular modern writer to conclude?

When I puzzle on the deep roots of originality, the thing that immediately comes to mind is sleep – something of a pet subject at the best of times, I admit! – and more particularly, the dreamlife that accompanies sleep.

Consulting the scientific literature, one could be forgiven for concluding that sleep is as inscrutable as originality:  its exact purpose in human and non-human biology is far from clearly understood.  (For example, in people, it may have some role in filtering the day’s experiences in order to lay down useful memories, and animal studies have suggested that it may replenish  neural processes – but there are plenty of competing theories).  Scientific studies tend to emphasise short-term, biology-driven benefits of sleep, but the writer in me can’t help but suspect that there’s some deeper, longer-term organisation or intelligence at work in dreaming.

Sometimes my dreams seem shamelessly symbolic – the careening car-with-very-spongy-brakes that I’m desperately trying to slow down, or the collection of baggage that I’m going to have to leave behind if I’m not to miss my imminently-departing flight.  At other times my dreams are intensely filmic, telling convoluted but essentially linear adventure stories.  Most interestingly, there’s a recurring dream which I’ve had for many years, but whose denouement continues to change subtly over time as I myself change, grow older, sort a few things out – a metaphorical mirror, almost.

The cumulative experience of all this dreamlife creates the sense of some coherent other, deep in my own mind, which has a penchant for symbolism, a vivid narrative imagination and (sometimes) a thing or two it wants to tell me.  It’s subjectively tempting – and yes, of course, rationally unjustifiable – to infer that it’s the same coherent other that feeds me both these ever-surprising dreams and these occasional “given” poems, constructions that are nominally offshoots of my own mind, and yet somehow feel like they’re from somewhere else.

What are the implications if the dream-self and the deeper writing-self are indeed two faces of the one entity, the true locus of our originality?   I find it encouraging –  not least because I’ve never suffered from Dreamer’s Block!  Dreamlife is abundant, so perhaps the rarity of Longley’s “rare event” is not because that deep creative voice doesn’t have things to say, but because we get too caught up in the noise of our busy conscious minds to hear it.  When we reach an artistic impasse, and all our work seems stale and unoriginal, perhaps it really is a sensible idea to “sleep on it”?

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.

Another opportunity from our friends at the Wordsworth Trust:

Wordsworth Trust Internship Programme

20th January- 31st December 2012

Applicants should demonstrate an enthusiasm for heritage and learning, and are expected to develop a knowledge of British Romanticism during the internship. Previous experience of museum work is not essential.

Interns will receive a unique, all-round experience (five out of seven days a week) of both an historic house and a working museum that receives over 55,000 visitors a year. Alongside visitor services, such as delivering guided tours of the cottage, selling tickets and merchandise in the gift shop and receiving visitors to the museum and the collections centre, interns will gain experience of caring for, maintaining and developing a Designated Collection of approximately 65,000 catalogued items. The curatorial team will equip interns with a knowledge and experience of museum practice and procedures, preventative conservation methods, updating and maintaining the collections records and researching potential and recent acquisitions and deposits. We are currently contemplating developing our own bespoke qualification which interns will complete during their residency.

There may also be opportunities to undertake projects and gain experience in other areas, such as education and outreach, custodianship, development and marketing.

Alongside the Museum, the Wordsworth Trust runs an extensive contemporary literature programme, which receives National Portfolio funding from the Arts Council. It includes an internationally renowned series of poetry readings, a Residency, and Writer and Reader Development programmes. There will be an opportunity for one intern to work closely with the Literature Officer on this programme, alongside their general duties.

Duration: Interns will be asked to commit to this programme and to see it through, unless unforeseeable personal circumstances intervene, during the dates specified above.

Financial implications: The Trust is able to award a training bursary of approximately £50.95 a week for subsistence.

Accommodation: This is a residential scheme, with shared, on-site accommodation available to rent. The rent is currently £60 a week and most interns find that they are eligible to receive housing benefit to cover their rent. Interns with savings of £6,000 or more may receive less benefit
Closing date for applications: 28th October 2011

For more information, please contact Jane Connolly at enquiries@wordsworth.org.uk

Interviews: Week commencing 21st November 2011

Remembering Edwin

August 18, 2011

Edwin Morgan has been much in our minds this week, on the first anniversary of his death. His own words are the best ones for remembrance. Several people turned to his poem ‘Fires’ at this time last year, with its wonderful evocation of a gramophone record heard across the street in Rutherglen, where he was growing up, and the repeated song ‘One Fine Day’:

… I thought of that person,
him or her, as taking me to a country
far high sunny where I knew to be happy
was only a moment, a puttering flame in the fireplace
but burning all the misery to cinders
if it could, a sift of dross like what we mourn for
as caskets sink with horrifying blandness
into a roar, into smoke, into light, into almost nothing.
The not quite nothing I praise it and I write it.

We write his name and go on praising the work, the far from nothing.

~ Robyn

Alan Riach pays tribute to the New Zealand poet K.O. Arvidson (1938-2011), who died recently.

Ken Arvidson was one of those very few people you meet in your life who is a co-ordinate point forever. He published one book of poems, Riding the Pendulum (Oxford University Press, 1973), collecting work from 1961 to 1969. Later, intermittently, individual poems appeared in magazines and anthologies. But the concise nature of the yield is not to be underestimated. If ever there was an argument against quantity as value, this is it.

I met him when I first arrived in New Zealand. I left Scotland in 1986 for a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Waikato, on the other side of the world. I knew nobody there. Glasgow to London to Los Angeles to somewhere in the Pacific to refuel, to Auckland, then the last, small plane to Hamilton. When I got off the plane and he met me at Hamilton airport, eyes shrewd, smile slightly crooked, cigarette between fingers, he had that look on his face and in his whole body as I approached him across the tarmac that is there in that line from his poem ‘The Tall Wind’ – a great poem that should be in every anthology –  ‘we’ll find out now what this young charlie knows’ – and I knew I was in good company and that I’d moved into some better context for conversation and exchange and respect and best of all, a liking. And forever equal to his giving, his implicit demand that such respect and liking should be maintained in balance.

It wasn’t always, and it never is, in any life, but that doesn’t matter: what matters is the example, the reliable fact of that co-ordinate point. For most of that first year in NZ for me, 86-87,  Ken and his wife Mary were in Britain, visiting my parents and encountering Dickens-country, Pip’s domain, Cooling Church and its lozenges, and Rochester, and I was in Hamilton, New Zealand, teaching Great Expectations and beginning to lecture, and using Ken’s office at the University of Waikato, which he’d kindly allowed me to do while he was away. I remember that office, his books there, the view from that window over the Waikato landscape to the mountains, and colleagues, the good company of those months, so clearly. I still have a collection of his letters to me from then, full of sharp observation, with a sense of a kind of residual wisdom about them.

Later, when I was a lecturer in the Department of English there, there was a whole stretch of years where the Department was altogether a great place to be, to work and learn and do good things.

Later again, I was teaching Scottish literature while Ken and Mary were travelling in Scotland, finding Orkney and the whole world of the Orkney archipelago particularly congenial and deeply affecting. The poems that came from his experience there are worth digging for. (‘Mid-Winter Orkney’ is available online from the NZ literary journal Sport, as is another travel-poem, mature, funny, bitter, ironic, from a journey in America: ‘Some Legends of the Civil War‘.) Other poems are utterly earthed in New Zealand. ‘Six o’ Clock in the Gluepot’ evokes the Auckland bar frequented by newspaper reporters, once upon a time: ‘So what’s it to be then? The question’s a hawk / On the point of hatching. The intoxicating air / Opens on more horizons than Cézanne.’ The ‘loveliness of exchange’ might turn to merely ‘affection’s flak…a bitter fall, and then the dark.’ Or, more optimistically, ‘a whole theatre of students getting your point at once, / Their jackets warm with rain, an indoors rainbow.’ Something that New Zealand offered him, and others too: ‘a breath of air, / Encountering again the child who knew itself / The centre, the unique spindle of the world.’ And ending, perfectly: ‘What’s it to be? / The enemy all along, gentlemen. It’s time.’ ‘Fish and Chips on the Merry-Go-Round’ takes a long, keen look at what Christianity, across centuries, might, at its best, still give ‘glints’ of. And ‘The Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss at Takahe Creek Above the Kaipara’ unwinds and explores all the bitter, longing, lonely implications of its title with rich, assiduous, slow, unstoppable momentum.

The way things are in the world, someone of Ken’s integrity and modesty is badly undervalued, even overlooked. But if you read his poems closely, they will give their worth and keep it, while others whose fashion might be glitzy will fade.

I’m told that at college he was in a class of boys discussing what literary character they would most like to be. Some opted for the-then newly-minted James Bond, one swot for David Copperfield. Ken said he’d rather be Banjo Patterson’s The Bastard from the Bush.

He had an element of greatness. There is that, to be said.

You can read more about New Zealand poets in our Introducing New Zealand poets project, including Alan Riach introducing Bill Manhire.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is here and our August will never be the same again! There’s plenty of poetry events that we can’t wait to get stuck into, and the first of the lot was last night’s ‘Poems from Small Islands’ event, the showcase of the now annual Crear / Literature Across Frontiers / SPL translation workshop [here’s a piece Robyn wrote about Crear from our Poetry Reader issue 6]. This year, the participating poets all come from ‘small islands’: Miriam Gamble is from Northern Ireland; Adrian Grima from Malta; Maria Rosa Llabrés Ripoll lives in Palma, Majorca; Jenan Selçuk lives in Famagusta, Cyprus and Ian Stephen in Lewis, Stornoway (when he’s not at sea).

The story of their week was unfolded through this dialogue via poems. We started by hearing Miriam’s translation of Adrian’s ‘Andrew Dreams of Catherine Wheels’; heard Adrian read his translation of ‘;’ by Miriam; Maria Rosa read her translation of Ian’s poem, ‘Baptist Church (Abandoned)’ and Jenan read his attempt at translating Miriam’s challenging poem ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’ (‘it nearly killed him’, Miriam told us). And so wonderfully on – a journey through their week, free-wheeling between Catalan, English, Turkish and Maltese.

It was a lovely evening, many of the poems prefaced with an explanation of the process: the difficulty of gendered words; the challenge of uncharted subject material; how some of the translations cleaved more closely to the original than others. One poem, Adrian’s poem for Abder, became ‘The Sea Swell’ in Ian’s hands, and many stanzas shorter in Miriam’s version, owing to the tradition of the compact Northern Irish lyric.

Miriam articulated her feelings on the complexities of translation: ‘it’s not the original poem, but not a freed poem either. It falls somewhere between the lines.’ Robyn closed by saying that she appreciated it was challenging to listen to an hour of poetry in an unknown tongue, but that she hoped the audience had revelled in the music of language. We certainly did.

The Wordsworth Trust is offering an opportunity for a new Poet in Residence, to run for ten months from the beginning of December 2011 to end of September 2012.

The Wordsworth Trust was founded in 1891 to maintain Dove Cottage, in Grasmere, Cumbria, home of William Wordsworth when he wrote much of his greatest poetry. Dove Cottage is now an internationally famous visitor attraction, and the Trust’s collection is now home to 90% of Wordsworth’s known manuscripts, one of the largest archive collections of a writer in the world. The contemporary literature programme at the Trust includes a season of Poetry Readings, renowned as one of the best in the country, and growing Reader and Writer Development programmes, often presented in partnership with national organisations such as The Poetry School and the Poetry Translation Centre.

The Residency offers an invaluable opportunity for a published poet, from any cultural background and writing within any literary tradition, to spend time in Grasmere, Cumbria, in the heart of the Lake District, an area of outstanding natural beauty that so much inspired William Wordsworth. The poet will be given space to develop their own work and will also be involved in delivering parts of the Wordsworth Trust Literature Programme, and be involved in the wider cultural life of Cumbria.

The Poet in Residence will be paid a monthly stipend of £1000, and provided with a cottage for which they will be charged a subsidised rent. For full details, and application procedure, contact Andrew Forster on A.Forster@wordsworth.org.uk or 015394 35544
The Wordsworth Trust welcomes applications from members of black and ethnic communities. Closing date for applications 4.00pm Friday Sept 2nd 2011. Wordsworth Trust website: http://www.wordsworth.org.uk/

A fantastic opportunity to work with our pals at the Wigtown Book Festival:

In the past 12 years, Wigtown Book Festival has blossomed into one of the most vibrant literary events in Britain.  A registered charity, the Festival showcases writers old and new and reaches more than 2,000 children a year.  It also contributes to the economy and national profile of Dumfries and Galloway.

For more information about the Book Festival go to: http://www.wigtownbookfestival.com/

We are looking for two interns to help the Festival increase its appeal to young people between the ages of 14 and 25. The successful interns will gain experience in how a book festival is run and promoted. You will develop skills in events management, as well as interviewing and editorial in a multi-media context. You will be mentored by a professional team; a journalist, the literature development officer, the Wigtown Festival Company Director and the Wigtown Festival Company manager.

This is an unpaid role offering journalist experience at a high level that will suit a young person interested in a career in broadcast, journalism or radio production. You will be expected to write a short evaluation report at the end of the internship

Full-time from Wednesday 21st September to Wednesday 5th October

Travel, expenses and accommodation in or near Wigtown will be provided.

Intern duties (2 posts)

The kind of projects / tasks you will undertake include:

  • Providing clear, simple to read content with the ability to speak directly to young people (14 to 25 years)
  • Interviewing visitors and volunteers at the Book Festival
  • Interviewing authors
  • Assisting the literature development officer with producing Wigtown Ink newsletters and events
  • Website: building a young readership by updating content, stories and events
  • Contributing to our multimedia presence e.g.  GLOW, other web sites, facebook, YouTube, local radio
  • Other events – helping out where required
  • Liaising and responding to requests from national media

Skills required:        

  • Research;
  • Following Editorial Guidelines;
  • High-level oral and written communication skills;
  • Good time keeping – ability to meet deadlines a must;
  • Flexibility and initiative;
  • Good team member.

Education Level

At least: A – Level / Scottish Highers / BTEC or NVQ equivalent

Access / Foundation Course or Apprenticeship

Application: a letter, no more than one side of A4, outlining why you want this opportunity, and an attached short CV.

Closing date and time for application: 5.00pm Friday 19th August.

There will be an interview for those short-listed so please indicate how to contact you quickly by e mail or phone.

Carolyn Yates
Literature Development Officer, Wigtown Book Festival
Dumfries and Galloway Arts
The Midsteeple, High Street

Tel:  01387 253383  Fax:  01387 253303
Mobile number: 07833477728

Registered in Scotland No: 127838  Charity No SCO08593