Sorley MacLean

November 15, 2011

We’re looking forward to Polygon’s launch of Sorley MacLean’s Collected Poems, Caoir Gheal Leumraich / White Leaping Flame at the Library on Wednesday. The jacket image is so evocative – not the elder statesman of Gaelic poetry but the young man who knew that he was an ‘idealist democratic revolutionary’ when he was twelve. The photograph suggests vulnerability, eagerness and energy in equal measures.

I always thought that poets would ‘collect’ their own poems with great care and discrimination, whereas in fact some are quite cavalier, even careless. When Carcanet Press first proposed to publish a collected edition of Sorley Maclean’s poems in 1988, I saw him literally gather together old proofs and photocopies, convinced he’d managed to mislay some important poems along the way. Some of them have at last been recovered.

This new collection is a work of impeccable scholarship, edited by Christopher Whyte and Emma Dymock. It’s also a tribute of devotion to the poet who hauled Gaelic poetry into the twentieth century – albeit not single-handed – and assured its place in the great world of European poetry, in the company of Yeats and Blok and Valéry. It’s a fitting conclusion to this year of centenary celebrations.

~ Robyn

Canan Marasligil is a freelance writer, editor, screenwriter and translator, who visited Edinburgh as part of the British Council Edinburgh Bookcase in 2010. She translated Emily Ballou’s poem for the TRANSPOESIE project. We’re delighted to have her blog post below.

Emily Ballou's poem in Brussels Metro

26 September is the European Day of Languages, celebrated every year across European cities through a wide range of events. Brussels, a multilingual city in nature with its official bilingual status (French and Flemish), its common use of English as part of its international status (European Parliament, Commission and the NATO are based here among other big institutions) and its ever growing demographics of citizens speaking a wide variety of languages, is hosting the TRANSPOESIE project and asks all its metro commuters: one poem, one trip, how many journeys?

Organised by EUNIC in Brussels and inspired by London’s Poems on the Underground and Warsaw’s Wiersze w Metrze displaying poetry in their cities underground stations, EUNIC has joined forces with the local transportation company STIB/MIVB to spread poetry all across the Brussels metro.

The official launch of TRANSPOESIE took place in Passa Porta, the International House of literatures, on the European Day of Languages. Directors Sigrid Bousset of Passa Porta and Martin Hope of British Council (current president of EUNIC Brussels) opened the event with an introduction on their respective institutions and their support for multilingual activities and projects.

The evening was hosted by Belgian poet, essayist and academic Peter Vermeersch. Seven of the twenty two poets featured on the TRANSPOESIE website were in Brussels to take the stage and discuss poetry, translation, languages, public space, and to read their poetry in their original language.

From the Page to the Public Space

Emily Ballou at Transpoesie event

The first part of the evening started with poets Morten Sondergaard from Denmark, Emily Ballou from the UK and Claudiu Komartin from Romania.

Vermeersch started the discussion by asking the poets how they felt about writing for the public space and if the process was any different from writing for the page.

It turned out all poems were already written before the project and not specifically thought for the public space. However, all three agreed on the challenge of being read by people on the move.

You’re always surrounded with text in the public space, so you need to compete with other content” says Sondergaard, “Poetry doesn’t sell” he adds.

Ballou explains that although her poem existed before, this series she’s written about lizard has been the most public of all her poems. “I like the idea of having these poems in the public space” she says, “the lizard signature is perfect for that.”

“We have moments in our lives when murmured words are more important than screamed ones” says Komartin, explaining that this is his idea of experiencing poems in the public space. “Among all those people, you have one moment for yourself when you are reading the poem” he says, emphasizing on the power of poetry.

“If you want to be heard you have to lower your voice” adds Sondergaard.

TRANSPOESIE is a project that brings poetry to people who are on the move and who can be transported by the poetry published on the billboards.

“Some of my poems started with overheard conversations” says Sondergaard, “the idea of movement is pretty much in poetry.”

Emily Ballou is also a screenwriter. When asked if she writes differently for the screen, she says that “for the screen, I look for images. Poetry gives more inside space.” She goes on telling about her preference to write on the typewriter, “I like the sound” she adds.

For Komartin as well, poetry has everything to do with rhythm, “It has to do with our every move, every choice we make.”

Poetry in Translation or Filling the Gaps

Peter Vermeersch with Lieke Marsman, Clara Janes, Radek Maly and Carl Norac

The evening continued with four more poets: Lieke Marsman from the Netherlands, Clara Janés from Spain, Radek Malý from the Czech Republic and Carl Norac from Belgium.

Vermeersch opened the conversation with multilingualism and translation, “Public space in Europe is filled with languages” he says giving Brussels as one good example. He asks the poets how they feel about being translated to another language.

Marsman says she felt honoured, “When I first read one of my poems in English it was a strange feeling. I tried translating my poems on my own thinking my English was good enough, then when I read the English translation, I found out I didn’t event understand some of the words!”

Janés, who is a translator herself, says she learns a lot from the translator, “I am a translator myself too so I know. You have to use your own language creatively to fill the gaps” and she adds, “You have to understand the mind of the poet.”

Malý translates from German to Czech and explains that he tried to translate one of his  poems to German, “with the help of my wife who is a native German speaker.” The German version turned out being another poem. “I don’t think about other translations” he says, “I prefer not to ask why my poem keeps rhymes in Dutch and not in French for instance” and adds “Every translation is interpretation.”

Norac talks about the dialogue that exists between the poet and the translator, “Translators ask what is behind the mirror” he says, “If you can talk with the translator you will win other things, you share secrets with the translator, you talk about your poetry in a different and new way with your translator.”

Vermeersch adds that it can even be more alienating when the poet knows the language in translation.

“I often write for illustrated books” explains Norac, “I picture poems in my head and I tell my translators to use their imagination. I want to tell them ‘I give you my poems, do what you want with it’.”

Peter Vermeersch and Morten Sondergaard

Vermeersch also asks Marsman if writing for a small language group like Dutch is annoying in terms of reaching audiences. She says it is not an issue, “I learned languages at an early age and can read poetry from different places. Also, there are translators, so I’m not worried about the state of Dutch poetry.”

He turns the question to the speakers of bigger languages, like Spanish and French. All poets agree it does not really matter and that what counts is that it needs to be written and read. “It’s not only about the language” says Norac, “but to find people to read the poetry.”

Poems will be on display in various metro station across Brussels until mid October. You can read all the poems in their original languages  and in their Dutch and French translations (no English I’m afraid) on the TRANSPOESIE website.

Some unmissable literature at this year’s Belladrum festival!

As a new departure this year, the Belladrum Festival, which takes place this weekend (5th & 6th August), will include a full-scale literary programme which will take the form of a series of hour-long sessions in the Prose Bed tent and three debates in the Verb Garden.  The sessions will consist of informal talks/ readings and discussions between several participants on a particular theme, with some involvement from the audience, who will be able to ask the writers questions and contribute to the discussions. This year, Belladrum’s literary event is being organised by author/journalist Mary Miers, in collaboration with Rachel Humphries of Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing centre.

Rachel says: ‘I’m very excited about the role Moniack Mhor has to play at the Belladrum festival, we’ve always had a presence but this year we are co-ordinating the Prose Bed Tent in partnership with author/journalist Mary Miers. Belladrum has been broadening its arts appeal since it was first established eight years ago and the addition of a literary tent will continue this process and bring a valuable new cultural dimension to the festival. We have a diverse range of authors from all parts of the country who will be participating on both days. The Prose Bed should attract anyone who is interested in reading or writing, or indeed, by those festival goers who would like to take a breather and relax on a sumptuous throw cushion’

The Belladrum festival, which is set in beautiful rolling parkland near Beauly, is now in its eighth year and has become a firmly established independent arts event in the Scottish cultural calendar, with an attendance of about 14,000. Visit the Belladrum website for more information!


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!

In anticipation of our glorious Reading Poetry for Pleasure course at Moniack Mhor in June, our Lilias turns her beady questioning stare on John Glenday. John will be Guest poet and reader at Moniack, alongside our director Robyn and Lilias. His third collection, Grain, was published by Picador in November 2009 to ecstatic acclaim, and shortlisted in 2010 for the Ted Hughes Prize for Excellence in New Poetry and for the Griffin Poetry Prize 2010. His first collection, The Apple Ghost won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and his second, Undark, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. You can read more about John in our A-Z of poets and listen to our podcast with him here. There are still some places left on this special weekend away; the booking deadline is 1st June.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.

When do you get to read?

I read in the quiet corners of the day – first thing in the morning, before anyone else gets up;  I often read out loud to my wife last thing at night; and I’ve always a few poetry collections in the loo…

I live for books
and light to read them in

What was the last poem you pressed on a friend, with a manic gleam in  your eye?

It was that wonderful Rorschach-like elegy by Julia Copus – Kim’s Clothes. How did she write that?

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no pleasure like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

If poems were food, name one fancy Heston Blumenthal-style starter, one hearty breakfast favourite and one guilty after-pub snack.

Kay Ryan’s ‘Silence’ with a rocket salad.

Full English Auden (served all day) – ‘Twelve Songs’’ (especially the tasty ‘O lurcher loving collier, black as night’)

A family bag of salt and vinegar Wendy Copes – ‘A Nursery Rhyme’ (in the style of William Wordsworth)

The pigs sleep in the sty: the bookman comes

What’s in your current reading pile, warts and all? (list the pulp fiction and the gardening catalogues too..) 

I must admit, I’m still on page 50 of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Also November by Sean O’Brien; The Hare with Amber Eyes; Delete this at your Peril (because I was born in Broughty Ferry) and One Thousand Nights and Counting (Selected poems of Glyn Maxwell). Oh, and A History of the World in One Hundred Objects (that’s the one I’ve been reading out loud to my wife).

And finally, John, you already have Shakespeare and the Bible on the desert island. You can keep one poem and one luxury. What’ll they be?

Och, I’d take a longish poem to keep me occupied – the Mahabharata, fully annotated. But  I’ll also sneak a few extra poems on to my desert island without anyone noticing. It’s called memorising. My one luxury would be an astronomical telescope to enjoy those wonderfully clear, unlit night skies.

Last year we joined forces with the Edinburgh International Science Festival to hear from Paul Murdin and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell on the anthology Dark Matter: poems of space, and we’re delighted to be tag-teaming again this year for two events, happening this week!

Sophie Cooke & Russell Jones at the Genomics Poetry Competition prize-giving at the Scottish Poetry Library in January 2011 © Chris Scott

Our first event is a Genomics Poetry Party: we invite you to join us on Wednesday 13 April (tomorrow) at 6.30pm, when Sophie Cooke and Russell Jones, both prize-winners in the Genomics Poetry Competition, will read their winning poems and some others; judge, and poet, Kona Macphee, and novelist and poet Tracey S Rosenberg will join us too. It promises to be a fascinating evening and we’re really looking forward to it! If you can’t make it, our latest podcast features Sophie and Russell, talking about why they are drawn to science fiction as a literary form among other things, and the podcast before that stars Tracey and science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. All in the name of science!

On this day Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space when he took off

Nothing is not giving messages - Edwin Morgan. Vinyl lettering, part of our Bawr Stretter! exhibition celebrating the opening of the Edwin Morgan Archive in 2009

aboard a Soviet Vostok capsule on April 12, 1961 and completed nearly a full orbit of the Earth over 108 minutes. It seems specially apt then that our Lilias, in preparation for the second of our two events with this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival, has been riffling through anthologies of poems of space and science. She’s unearthed lines such as ‘Time sped and slowed. The constellations shifted/ bringing us messages in particles of dust and light’ (from ‘A Dream of Constellations’ by Deryn Rees-Jones, which, in Poems of Dark Matter, is transposed into Morse code, in honour of the astronomers who sent Morse code out into space for whoever was there to receive them). If you’d like to delve into discussion about poems of science, then join Lilias for our Nothing But the… Science Fiction Poetry on Thursday 14 April here at the library at 6pm.

Meanwhile, our friends up the hill at the Scottish Storytelling Centre have thrown themselves into the science festival with great gusto, and they’ve got something for everyone! Why is Snot Green? How Does the Weather Work? Murderous Maths! These are just some of the … delights in store!