Poetry in Motion!

October 20, 2011

Ishbel McFarlane talks us through her latest scheme of reading poetry on trains. 

Ishbel McFarlane. Photo copyright of Jamie Donoghue
I am a poetry fan. I am a big poetry fan. That much has been clear since I did my first poetry reciting competition aged six. As an adult I’m connected into a network of poetry fans: I studied literature at university, I am in a poetry book group in Glasgow  and I hang out at readings and events whenever time allows. And time would have to allow a great deal if I was to go to every event in the Central Belt, nevermind stretching out into the wider world of Britain’s enviable poetic culture.

This has NOTHING, however, on the scale of the world I connect with when I journey into the train fan world. Because over the last few years I have also become a train fan. A biggish train fan. I say biggish because it’s hard not to compare oneself with the true giants of train fandom, whose ability to store facts and whose grasp of history makes a mockery of my vague, sweeping, English-literature-degree understanding of poems.

What I like about trains is less train numbers, or rail gauges or classes of carriage, but rather rail’s impact on our history, the ease and speed it achieves and the revolutionary stories of its creation. The nice thing about this side of trains is that loads of poets have liked these aspects too. What would be more natural then, than for me to unite my two fan lives, and do a poetry recital on a train?

With the support of ScotRail and the lovely people of the SPL, in the Fringe I did a show that started in Edinburgh Waverley and ended in Glasgow Central. It was primarily about the difference between the two cities and why we presume you have to choose between them. Accordingly, the poems in that show were about the two places, and I recited the work of folk like Gael Turnbull, Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan.

My latest show, however, began in Airdrie and ended in Edinburgh. It was part of the North Lanarkshire literature festival, Words2011, and since there was not such an explicit focus on the start point and destination, I was able to turn our poetic eyes to the mode of transport that we were using.

For this show I particularly focussed on the cultural impact of the Beeching Cuts. In December of last year ScotRail  reopened the Airdrie to Bathgate line, connecting Scotland all the way from Edinburgh to Helensburgh. The ripples of Dr Beeching’s report are particularly strong on this line. In 1985 a new Bathgate station was being built, the first in the UK since the axe. On the very day the first sod was cut for the station, Dr Beeching died. Poetic justice? As a partner piece to this story I recited Robert Crawford’s rather terrifying prose poem, ‘Grim Reaper’, from Spirit Machines, in which Crawford paints Beeching as death himself. It was delicious.

Performing poems on trains has many delights and many trials. At the forefront is the joy of reminding folk of the excitement of beginning in one place and ending in another. I find that by rooting my words in the places we pass through, and being part reciter and part tour guide, I can open their eyes to things they maybe never knew about places they have always known. As the performer and writer it is a fantastic opportunity learn about a place and its poetry, and also to explain and recite poems to the many folk who got on the train with no idea there was going to be a recital. It is, after all, an ordinary train, and in as ordinary a way as possible I want to share poems with passengers and staff. And I am a big, big fan of that.

Ishbel McFarlane is an actor, writer and director currently based in Glasgow. You can hear Ishbel talking about Burns on our podcast, ‘Inside the SPL‘. 

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