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‘. 

Feel good poems

October 10, 2011

Renata Edge and that marvellous quilt

It’s International Mental Health Day, and from 1-24 October it’s also the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival. We were thinking about happy poems this morning – there’s a nice task for a Monday morning – and asking for recommendations from Twitter friends to add to our own playlists.

Poems can simply add to your sense of wellbeing, and – just like a favourite song coming on the radio, or the smell of fresh waffles, or stomping along in new red boots (thank you Kit Wright), they can lift your mood.  What poems make you happy? What poems make you feel good?  Which ones make you laugh out loud? Or snicker furtively? Which poems reassure you if you’re having a wobbly day? Or even, what poem best describes happiness?

These are some of the suggestions that came in today on Twitter:


‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’

‘The Confirmation’ by Edwin Muir but also ‘The Sea’ by Pablo Neruda & ‘Tam O’Shanter’ is a hoot!

‘One Star in the West’, George McKay Brown: peace

‘Grace and Pride’, Manus Lunny

‘O Leave Novels’ by Burns (read here by Robert Carlyle)

Elaine Feinstein, Getting Older http://bit.ly/reopuu and Raymond Carver, Late Fragment http://bit.ly/aiFcse.

All Things Pass – http://poemof-theday.blogspot.com/2010/04/all-things-pass-lao-tzu.html

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, Still I Rise by Maya Angelou


Poem that makes me happy? Billy Collins’ “Litany,” esp when read by this guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVu4Me_n91Y #poem #poetry #poemsaloud

it’s an odd one, but I find ‘For a Lamb’ by Richard Eberhart soothing. A reminder of the natural cycle of life & its beauty.

Hopkins, ‘heaven/haven’; Duffy ‘prayer’.

Enter a Cloud by W.S. Graham ‘And I am here as near / Happy as I will get / In the sailing afternoon.’

One of my all-time favorites is Bukowski’s “Nirvana,” read perfectly by Tom Waits on his Orphans record!

Today when we were looking for ‘happy poems’, Renata Edge brought in this wonderful quilt – an ongoing autobiography – and a poem she loves about quilting that is, indeed, happy: ‘The Patchwork Quilt’ by Elizabeth Fleming.

Read Aloud

October 7, 2011


Last night Read Aloud (a project with Edinburgh City Libraries and SPL) won the Get Up and Go Awards category for ‘products or services that make a difference’ to older people in Edinburgh. Huzzah to Lilias, Annie Bell from the Edinburgh City Libraries and all the volunteers! Below, Lilias explains more about the project.

We know how much pleasure people can have from hearing and recognising poems; lines and phrases seem to be hardwired into the brain, and remembered long after other things are difficult to recall. Annie Bell works at Edinburgh libraries, and she wanted to set up some way to bring the pleasure of reading to people who can’t borrow and read books themselves, particularly elderly residents of local carehomes.  So about a year ago, we sat down together and started to figure out what the Scottish Poetry Library and Edinburgh City Libraries would need to begin reading in carehomes.

A few months later, we had the active support and interest of our colleagues, and of three carehomes willing to try a visit once a month for three months.  We had a choice of different kinds of poems about gardens and flowers, and things like flowers and big fat runner bean seeds and some stalks of lavender for people to hold or smell or see. And we arrived at the first carehome, looked at each other thoughtfully, and rang the bell.

Since the first visit, we’ve been in no doubt that reading poems and talking is A Good Thing to do. Care workers note that some residents who are normally quite detached can suddenly respond to a few lines of a poem or even recite verse after verse, word-perfect.  Some residents like to add their own memories:  we pick poems to a theme that we hope will provide plenty of reminiscence, like Hallowe’en or Days Out or Growing Up in Edinburgh.   Some residents just like to hear poems that sound good.  Moods change, health varies:  I’ve had somebody shouting, ‘I’m no havin’ this! I’m awa hame!’, and somebody hold my hand to stop us leaving;  Leith ladies teaching me risqué playground rhymes, tips on how to fake a tan stocking, and often somebody murmuring ‘I’ve not heard that since I was..’.

After three months, we were ready to ask for a few volunteers; we were cautious about taking on many people to start, realising we would like to support volunteers as well as we could.  We currently have ten extraordinarily well-suited volunteers, who go out in pairs accompanied by a staff member to five homes.  The only apparent limit to how many volunteers we can take on is just how fast we can reasonably grow. Their company makes a huge difference to how many homes we will ultimately be able to visit, and to how much pleasure each listener can get from listening and talking. It’s early days. But a Good Thing? Leaving a carehome at the end of a session, it often like The Best Thing I’ve done all month.

If you would like to find out more about volunteering to Read Aloud in Edinburgh carehomes, please contact Lilias Fraser at the Scottish Poetry Library, lfraser@spl.org.uk, or Annie Bell at the Edinburgh City Libraries, annie.bell@edinburgh.gov.uk or 0131 242 8046.



Postcards to Japan

April 20, 2011

Express your support to the people of north east Japan by sending original A5 art work postcards.

After the major earthquake and tsunami in north east Japan on 11th March 2011 power supplies, land lines, mobile phone networks and internet access went down, making it extremely hard to contact family and friends to find out if they were safe. The post office were quickly up and running again and in many cases the first news that loved ones were safe was by postcard.

Inspired by the wonderful impact postcards can have, Kate Thomson & Hironori Katagiri would like to invite artists and poets to send tangible messages of support to communities affected by the devastation by making A5 size original artwork or poetry postcards and posting them to:

Ukishima Net,
Iwate, Iwate,  Iwate,

They will collate all the postcards received into an exhibition to tour venues in north east Japan. There is no deadline, but if they have as many cards as possible by the end of May they can start putting on exhibitions.
They also hope to publish a catalogue of the postcards received.
Any profit made from the sale of catalogues would be donated to recovery projects in north east Japan.

Please look out for updates on http://www.ukishima.net   If you have any questions please e-mail info@ukishima.net

Word Express, Istanbul

November 5, 2010

This time last week I was on my way to Istanbul, to join in the events that formally closed Literature Across Frontiers‘ (LAF) brilliant Word Express project. The network of friendships and translation won’t close down though: that’s the enduring, unquantifiable effect of such projects. I saw the rose-pink station where the Orient Express used to pull in, and where many writers disembarked in 2009. Poets who had been on SPL/LAF workshop at Crear this summer were reunited; it was a great pleasure to see Efe Duran and Gokçenur Ç on their home ground and to participate in the face-to-face poetry event they organised at the Nazim Hikmet café. Our Reader in Residence Ryan Van Winkle was there too, recording poets for our podcast series as we crossed the Bosphorous (İstanbul Boğazı) on a sunny afternoon, sipping çay. I chaired a panel discussion on minority languages at the Istanbul Book Fair, which ended with a poem in Welsh and a song in Basque. As Iain Crichton Smith wrote, ‘Like a rainbow, like crayons, spectrum of beautiful languages’.

– Robyn

A very poetic thank you!

October 29, 2010

Via our ‘Lost for Words’ service, Lizzie recently received an enquiry: the enquirer’s husband had but a few half-remembered lines from ‘distant youth’; could Lizzie fathom the rest?  She sprang into action, the poem being ‘The Train to Glasgow’ by Wilma Horsbrugh, a longer poem published on its own as a children’s book, as well as being included in several anthologies.

We were delighted today when Lizzie received a thank you poem, written in the style of the rediscovered ‘The Train to Glasgow’, and doubly pleased to have Mr Miles’ permission to reprint it here.

This is a thank-you to Lizzie MacGregor,
That very kind lady who sent me the letter,
A poem from childhood a tale of a train
And the guard and some hens and that Donald MacBrain.

Now many years later recite I still can,
As far as young Donald’s hauled into the van,
But what happened next I just could not recall,
And no one I asked knew this poem at all.

Now things have moved on since those dim, distant days,
Our world of computers provides us with ways,
So, the whole of the poem’s come back in my life,
With thanks to you Lizzie and Jacquie my wife!

Penned by Peter Michael Miles – 29th October 2010

During the Edinburgh International Book Festival, an international delegation came to Edinburgh under the auspices of the British Council ‘Bookcase’ programme. The group comprised cultural practitioners from all over the world; festival directors, programmers, writers, facilitators and, as well as a packed daily programme of book festival events, they took time to lunch in several literary institutions across the city. We were delighted to co-host a lunch here at the library in collaboration with our close neighbours, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, on Saturday 21 August.

Our Robyn and Donald Smith, director of the Storytelling Centre, both gave welcomes and explanations to our international visitors about our respective organisations, programmes and activities, and as a result of mentioning our love of all things social media, Canan Marasligil, Project Manager of the Benelux Region for the British Council invited me (Peggy) to Brussels to talk to the Benelux Innovators group about how we engage with audiences using social media channels. I went just last week to take part in a meeting in the wonderful Bozar on the broader topic of ‘engaging with audiences’ (a topic close to the hearts of programmers and communications people everywhere!) and spoke alongside Sophie Hayles, from the Whitechapel Gallery in London and Duncan Speakman – artist, theatre maker and creator of subtlemob.

Sophie was really interesting on the particular concerns of drawing local audiences to your space, pertinent to the Whitechapel Gallery in light of its original didactic and site-specific mission to ‘bring great art to the people of the East End of London’, and on international partnerships. Duncan meanwhile explained how he has used the concept of a subtlemob to bring audiences into a shared, public experience using music and dialogue to ‘make films without cameras’. I talked about all of you, our loyal readers, who read our blog and share our tweets and like our Facebook stuff, you who make communicating poetry such a pleasurable dialogue, and hardly like work at all. We projected images of the Scottish Poetry Library, inside and out, for all the Benelux network to see: for that moment, and in continued dialogue, the Scottish Poetry Library spreads its work to Brussels, the Netherlands and Luxembourg!

It’s excellent to be a part of this network, and I’m very grateful to Canan and the British Council for the invitation; it was invaluable to meet others from the sector outside of Scotland who are engaging with their audiences and each other about how to communicate – and listen – effectively.  Staying on for the remainder of the weekend, I had a fabulous time exploring Brussels. I particularly enjoyed visiting the exhibitions and cinematek at Bozar, the music in St Gery, the superb English language bookshop on Wolfengracht (which has a great poetry selection!) and felt it would’ve been culturally remiss not to sample the local fare… I’ll leave the moules, beers, waffles and chocolates for another time…