Back in August, as clouds came and went over the Sound of Jura, a group of poets were focusing their thoughts and translation energies on Robert Burns and on the fall of the Wall: the 250th anniversary of the birth of one, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the other. We called the workshop – under the auspices of Literature Across Frontiers and the SPL – ‘Revolutionary Europe’. That title meant very different things to poets from Germany, Romania and Poland, and to us in Scotland. One of the many wonderful works that came out of the pressure-cooker at Crear, where the poets simmered for a week, was a poem by Michael Augustin that began with memories of children playing round the wall: no longer cowboys and Indians but defectors and police. And Scots provided just the right register for its mix of bleakness and humour, in the capable hands of Donny O’Rourke. So we’re marking that very significant anniversary today by featuring Michael’s poem (in the original German) and Donny’s translation on our site, and plan to follow it with more of the excellent poems from that very fruitful workshop – some of you may have heard them read at Crear itself or at the Book Festival in Edinburgh. The SPL is a window on the world as well as a window on  Scotland: these workshops show how we keep that window open, and the breeze blows both ways.

SH's signature in our guest bookIn a week that has featured balmy autumnal weather; the launch of our Carry a Poem website (remember gang: poems are for every day, not just for funerals!)  and the invitation to tell us which poems you carry with you; not one but several notably super tea time treats, with particular reference to M&S deeply chocolatey mini rolls and Moomin biscuits from Finland; the launch of Lesley Harrison’s One Bird Flying (Mariscat) on Monday evening, and the resumption of the School of Poets writing workshoppers on Tuesday, it was a massive pleasure to have a visit from Nobel Laureate, and ‘one quarter of the SPL’s honorary presidency’, Seamus Heaney on Wednesday. He popped by en route from Newcastle back to Dublin, to join us for a wheen of canapés and a toast to the friends and supporters of the SPL these past 25 years. It was a magnificent evening, and he, a magnificent, charming man.

Forward thinking

July 23, 2009

Forward cover 2009The Forward Prize shortlists have been announced, after ‘a record number of submissions’. The £10,000 Best Collection category  is a who’s who of contemporary poetry titans: Don Paterson for his yet to-be-published Rain; Peter Porter for his 18th collection, Better Than God; Glyn Maxwell for his ninth collection Hide Now; Christopher Reid for A Scattering, the first book published by Arete Magazine edited by Craig Raine; Hugo Williams for his autobiographical West End Final and Sharon Olds for One Secret Thing.

In the Best First Collection category are: Wordsworth Trust’s Poet in Residence Emma Jones for The Striped WorldSiân Hughes, a postgraduate student at Warwick who is nominated for The Missing; Swansea-born Meirion Jordan for Moonrise; Lorraine Mariner, who works at the Southbank Centre’s Poetry Library, for Furniture; JO Morgan for Natural Mechanical, a book-length poem charting the self-education of Iain “Rocky” Rockcliffe as he truants from his school on Skye; and Meghan O’Rourke for Halflife.

The prize for best single poem will be contested by Paul Farley for ‘Moles’; Michael Longley for ‘Visiting Stanley Kunitz’; Robin Robertson for ‘At Roane Road’; Elizabeth Speller for ‘Finistere’; George Szirtes for ‘Song’; and CK Williams for ‘Either/Or’.

Many of the shortlisted will be appearing in Edinburgh this festival: at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday 23 August at 7pm, Sharon Olds; Don Paterson, reading alongside John Burnside, will be there on Sunday 29 August at 2.30pm; Peter Porter and Hugo Williams are reading with CK Stead on Saturday 22 August at 10.15am; Emma Jones is reading there with Gillian Clarke and Lorna Crozier on Monday 24 August at 10.15am; Robin Robertson with Michael Symmons Roberts on Sunday 23 August at 4.30pm. J O Morgan will read from Natural Mechanical and discuss book binding at the West Port Book Festival on Thursday 13 and Friday 14 August. Emma Jones is conducting a residential weekend course in Cumbria with Jacob Polley in November.

New writers?

July 22, 2009

SBT logoWe’re very happy to flag this up on behalf of our pals up the road at the Scottish Book Trust: the New Writers Awards (formerly the Scottish Arts Council New Writers Bursaries) will provide eight  unpublished writers with financial support to enable them to concentrate on their work, as well as providing professional guidance to move towards publication. This includes all you new poets out there!

Recipients will receive a cash award of £2,000, and, in addition, Scottish Book Trust will provide tailored professional development support, e.g. mentoring or professional development planning, or an advice session with a publisher/agent. Scottish Book Trust will also provide networking opportunities with publishers/agents. New Writers will be given three months to work on their material before moving forward with professional development support.

Tell me more!

We had the pleasure of hosting the Scottish launch of Tim Turnbull and Tim Wells in May past, and in chatting to Donut Press publisher Andy Ching, found him to be an avid W S Graham fan. They had recently published  Graham’s Approaches to How They Behave (it so happens I was at the very entertaining launch for that in the Melton Mowbray pub in London). Their website explains that it first appeared in his landmark collection Malcolm Mooney’s Land and they’ve reproduced it, together with a selection of extracts from Graham’s correspondence and an introduction from Sean O’Brien.

Robyn noticed that Sotheby‘s had some W S Graham items at auction yesterday, with the lot intriguingly described thus: “comprising 11 autograph and 12 typescript pages of light verses on drinking at the Gurnard’s Head Hotel and comic bawdy poems”. Robyn initially pondered ‘stains, some tears’  before the penny dropped and she realised this was book speak for small rips and not the watermarks of Graham’s weeping.

Andy was kind enough to offer to send us a few Donuts for our holdings, and we were delighted to take delivery of a very well-taped parcel the other week: shoe-box in size and unprepossessing in aspect, fighting into it we were delighted to uncover a set of delectable Donuts! Roddy Lumsden, Colette Bryce, John Stammers, Paul Farley and the afore-mentioned Tims, to name but a few of the titles, comprised the batch. The Donut aesthetic never fails to please.

It is with a degree of trepidation that I cross the threshold of the library today… because I am carrying a packet of STRAWBERRY jaffa cakes. Things could go badly wrong at Friday tea-break-time. They are surely going to be in the category of things are are just not quite right.

Maybe? Maybe not? The strawberry jaffa cake.

Maybe? Maybe not? The strawberry jaffa cake.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with strawberries. Edwin Morgan gets it absolutely right in his poem ‘Strawberries‘ – right down to that perfect last line: ‘let the storm wash the plates’. (We have lovely free postcards of this poem by the way – drop in to get some or we can post them to you.)

Dare I say that a good poem is like an original jaffa cake (orange), and that a not-so-good one is maybe (they’ve yet to be tasted of course) more like a strawberry jaffa cake. Some poems are just perfect – all the ingredients blend together to create something greater than the sum, something that lingers in the mind for ages. Others just don’t. Those good poems – happy accidents? Or more likely incredible skill hiding behind apparent simplicity.

Last lines – are they the hardest part of the poem to get right? Poets out there, tell us please. The challenge of bringing a poem to a close, yet quietly leaving it open for the reader. I’m reminded of the story of Robert Frost and the ending of his poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. I hope I’ve not imagined this - correct me if I’m wrong. But I believe he was writing the poem and didn’t know how to end it, so just to fill the space of the last line of the last stanza temporarily he repeated the third line of that stanza: ‘And miles to go before I sleep.’ But somehow that sounded right, and he never did change it. And how could it be any other way now?

We’ll let you know how the strawberry jaffa cakes tasted later maybe…


let the storm wash the plates

We’re in the midst of a great poetry season on the BBC, but what is really making the headlines? The lives of poets: first of all, betting on the laureateship, and now the murky dealings around the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford. How many column inches have been devoted, over the past five years, to the actual poems of Carol Ann Duffy or Ruth Padel?

The Independent used to carry a column by Padel discussing one contemporary or classic poem in depth, and that did poetry a great service; Duffy has edited the Daily Mirror’s poetry corner. The Herald carries its daily poem; The Scotsman has dropped from poem of the week to poem of the month. Coming across poems by chance – as in the Poems on the Underground in London, which have been running for decades and are much treasured – seems to me the best way to put poetry in front of people. We want poets on the radio and in the press as a matter of course, not because they’re competing or seasonal but because they’re writing poems that will provoke, amuse, charm.

And we’d like these poems and poets to appear without the media asking every time whether poetry is still read or valued. Of course it is! You’d hardly know it, so few poetry books are reviewed or discussed outside literary magazines, with the honourable exception of the Guardian; recitals are reviewed, but not poetry events. Let’s move the focus off the personalities and on to the poems. As Ezra Pound said, ‘literature is news that stays news’.

~ Robyn

As mentioned on Thursday, Friday’s trip to Isle Martin was cancelled due to hazardous weather  (Angus Peter Campbell was storm bound in Lochmaddy on Uist for the same reasons). Some of the sea sick among us were not too discomfitted by this, but the resourceful Joan Michael of UBF vanquished disappointment by moving the tour to the Village Hall.  I turn to Ishbel, who visited last year for this picture, taken from the window of one of the abandoned houses there:

An abandoned house on Isle Martin by lovely Ishbel

An abandoned house on Isle Martin by lovely Ishbel

To paint a ‘pen portrait’ of Isle Martin, it is best to steal the words of Andro Linklater, the festival’s enormously entertaining first participant, who lived there while writing his biography of Compton MacKenzie: “the island is roughly 3 miles by 1 mile and shaped like a bulbous, bow-headed whale. There are cliffs down to the sea, and a magical loch where the blow hole would be (both source of drinking water and swimming pool – just make you drink before you swim…) It had a population of 90 – 100 people at its peak. The whale’s tail curves in towards the mainland  with a bay on the east side.” He spoke about ‘Monty’s’ immense theatricality (‘affecting the Gaelic to the people of Barra’), and about his industriousness in founding the Gramophone, the SNP and the Siamese Cat Club…

Mark Wringe took Angus Peter Campbell’s place in reading the Gaelic, and Derrick McClure the Scots of Campbell’s Meas Air Chrannaibh (Fruit on Branches). They followed up with an interesting discussion of the translation process.

Margaret Bennett told tales of Scottish Highland emigrants, during the clearances and the Scottish famine, to Canada, then James Graham, one half of ‘the Posh and Becks of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, sang gorgeous Gaelic laments, collected from singers in the Ullapool area.

In the evening we had Alison Miller and Alice Thompson talking about their intriguingly contrasting novels, Demo (Miller) and The Falconer (Thompson), and a comic tour de force from A L Kennedy on, quite simply, words.

The weather looks almost exactly like the picture below – a calmer Loch Broom than yesterday.  My welly purchase (in which I hirpled to the Loch Broom hardware shop, soddenly pump-shod, and acquired some navy Dunlops) was not timely. A L Kennedy says my dress, jumper and welly combo makes me look like I’m about to feed hens. I thought I was rocking an ‘I Know Where I’m Going!‘ kind of theme…

Loch BroomI’ll be representing the SPL later at Poems Aloud (persuade your Ross-shire relatives to join in!) and will report back from that later…

Carol Ann Duffy

May 6, 2009

It’s old news now that Carol Ann Duffy was announced our new Poet Laureate last Friday, succeeding Andrew Motion‘s ten year tenure. She’s been all over the news: the media dwelt upon her supposed swithering over taking the role, and how the bookies William Hill closed betting days before the announcement, with Duffy 5/4 favourite to take the sherry. There’s been much excitement about her being the first woman in the role’s 400 year history, for being a Scot (she was born in Glasgow), for being a lesbian. Philip Hensher wrote that the poems are what matters in the Independent, and Carol Rumens acquiesced with this Guardian blog, saying that talent is more important than gender. The Observer published this interview with her, in which she speaks frankly about the role and the Guardian followed it up with a handy slideshow of poet laureate portraits through the ages and a video chat with Charlotte Higgins. She has donated her salary as laureate to the Poetry Society for a new prize, is apparently on the programme for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and we found out she likes her sherry dry.

But do you know what? We think she’s wonderful and her poetry books are among our most borrowed, but as our Robyn put it in the Edinburgh Evening News, we think it blooming marvellous to see poetry hitting the headlines!

*Something Entirely Unrelated Warning*

We always like to put a jolly picture with our blog posts, and what jollier than this picture here:
Janice Galloway's chicks

These are Janice Galloway‘s chicks. In the course of an email exchange, she sent the picture to Lilias, who let me have a peep, and quite taken by them, thought we had to have them. Happily, Janice was kind enough to let us put such week old minors online.


May 5, 2009

The furled sail of the fully rigged galley, the Tree of Life, may be a symbolic statement on the passing of life. Card by Marianna Lines.

The furled sail of the fully rigged galley, the Tree of Life, may be a symbolic statement on the passing of life. Card by Marianna Lines.

In a week where we have gained the first female Poet Laureate in Carol Ann Duffy, we are sad to note the passing of three poets who between them exhibited poetry’s enormous breadth.

U A Fanthorpe (1929 – 2009) passed away on 28 April. In An Appreciation in the Guardian, her publisher at Peterloo said ‘UA was a totally original poet who could make you both laugh and cry – sometimes in the same poem’. Tom McGrath (1940 – 2009), of whom the Herald said ‘a playwright and polymath without whom the arts scene in Scotland would not have been as vibrant’ died on 29 April. Maurice Lindsay (1918 – 2009), ‘the grand old man of Scottish letters’ (the Herald) broadcaster, writer, poet and editor has died aged 90 on 30 April. 

TO CATCH THE LAST POST by Maurice Lindsay

The party’s almost over. Though at times a trifle odd,
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you for having me, God.
From ‘Brevities’ (Collected Poems 1940 – 1990, Aberdeen University Press, 1990)


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