Thursday, 24 December 2009

Happy Christmas Everyone

The alchemy of myth-
the stars and angels, the earth's
return to light, green ivy,
the quickening sap in the tree's
deep heart, the cattle
kneeling in frosty fields,
the robin's song at midnight -
all refined to the bare particular
fact of a birth -
that night, that inn, that boy.

Peace and happiness to everyone who is celebrating the winter feasts.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

death of a bookshop

I was in Glasgow yesterday, and couldn't resist going into Borders for the last time. I got two poetry books I'd wanted for ages for half price, and I guess Eavan Boland and Gillian Clarke will get the good of it no matter what the circumstances, but boy, it was sad.

The top floor was closed off altogether now so much stock has been sold, and all the rest is huddled onto shelves with temporary labels, and the gaps are appearing and closing up again as books go and are not replaced.

One of my children was working at the Sweater Shop when it went into administration, and although it wasn't her career, just a student job, the experience was traumatic. As other shops closed down the leftovers were sent to hers, and people would rush in looking for bargains. Then the shelves would empty again and a few more staff would be let go. I got the same feeling yesterday. All the staff working their socks off, and knowing that every day brings you a little nearer the edge. God bless them, I hope they all find good jobs to got to, and soon.

But I also hope that whoever takes on the building will try to do something else significant with it. Borders was more than a bookshop. It was a bookshop that tried, as Waterstones used to, to present the range of what was available, to encourage diversity and experiment, to recognise that books were a bit more than a commodity, and reading was more than something to fill the time in airports. Not bad for a big corporate chain.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Scottish Pamphlet Poetry

Last night Scottish Pamphlet Poetry organised a pamphlet fair, to which I was invited by Mary Thomson, who produces the most beautiful small books of illustrated poems - she doesn't have a web-site, so I can't post a link.

I was feeling fairly discouraged when I arrived. The night was wet and cold, the library appeared to be locked, and I'd just had the worst chicken Caesar salad I have ever seen in my life. However, there were signs helpfully directing us to a door that was open, and after that things looked up dramatically.

Inside there were tables where people were selling their pamphlets. It's unbelievable how much good poetry you can get for a couple of quid, and some publishers - perhaps it would be unfair to single out Perjink Press, but they're the ones I remember - go out of their way to make the pamphlets look and feel really lovely to handle and read. I didn't buy nearly enough, and not half as much as the sellers would have liked, I bet, but I have more than exceeded my poetry budget this year (again) so it will have to do. Nobody any good is allowed to bring out a book until the start of the next financial year!

I met a great many friends, largely, but not confined to, people I knew from Callander. Poetry is such a solitary occupation that is is more than usually cheering to meet up with other poets, and it was nice to have it assumed I would have something to sell! There were readings, limited with ferocious military precision, to two minutes, which meant they could fit thirty-six readings into three hours (with intervals). And if you incurred the penalty, you got a bag of chocolate coins, which must have sweetened the blow more than somewhat.

In the intervals there was wine, (or orange juice)and home-made mince pies, and the bran tub, where for a pound I got AC Clark's The Gallery on the Left, full of excellent poems about Vermeer and Cezanne. And music. I wish I could remember the names of the musicians because they played wonderful traditional music.

I had to leave early, because trains to Stirling run only once an hour after seven, and I had no idea how long it would take me to get to the station. But I left full of admiration not only for the poets, but for the organisation which could bring together so many talented people to put on such an event.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

More of the same, more of the same

Still busy with family. I went to see my mother in Liverpool, also catching up with my sister and two of my brothers. Good fun, and I slept so much while travelling I feel like a new person. It doesn't mean there is much writing going on, however. I have been Christmassed - you know the stage where every brain cell you have left is full of presents and who is going to be home and what will they eat and defrosting the freezer.
Also every time I turn around there seems to be something lovely that my grand-daughter would really like.

Nevertheless. Two poems last week, one of them even finished. And the news about next year's festivals is coming out - StAnza looks fabulous already. Usually it sneaks up on me and I find myself saying "Oh, if only I'd known last week---" Next year it will be different!
Here is the link

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Creative Process

Here is a link to an article by Alan Jamieson on the process of writing. It is thoughtful, coherent demanding, encouraging, illuminating.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Monday, 9 November 2009

how not to write a ghazal

It shouldn't be, but to me it often is, a surprise how the form of a poem shapes its content. A sonnet, as Don Paterson says, is just the shape and length of a particular kind of thought, a proposition which I have twice found to be the case. A villanelle, if it is to work properly, has to express and sum up a really strong mood or insight, so as to stand up to all that repetition. A ballad is not only a story, but a particular kind of story that will move quickly and take the stripped down plot and the archetypal characters.
A ghazal, as I learned at Juliet Wilson's workshop, is a poem made up of rhymed couplets, each of which ends with the same word or phrase. The chosen phrase, I thought, would have to be quite powerful in itself, admit of considerable variation of emphasis and have to have a very simple word, easy to rhyme, before it. So this is mine:

Going Home
She will go back there one day, but not yet.
She has not had long enough away, not yet.

It will have to be soon, before things change
so much that she will lose her way, but not yet.

She knows she would be welcome again.
They would even expect her to stay. Not yet.

Has she got what she wanted from leaving?
It is still far too soon to say. Not yet.

But has she forgotten the places
where the children used to play? Not yet.

I am a lot happier about this than I was when I wrote it,but I still think it misses the point. I was looking for some driving thought, some sense of progress through the poem, and this is a form which, it seems, is inimical to that sort of thing. A ghazal is meant to be meditative, cumulative. It doesn't matter to a ghazal where a particular couplet is placed, or if you come to a conclusion by the end. The effect it want is a timeless heaping up of image and impression and creation of mood. It seems entirely appropriate that it is usually written to express 'longing'.

I think I will have to start again!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

the true and the sacred

This is an odd week. Last Saturday I went to the Radical Book Fair in Edinburgh, and then to a poetry workshop about the Persian poetic form the Ghazal. And then it was Halloween and on Sunday it was the Feast of All Saints. So I had planned to post about ghazals on Burnedthumb, and how the cumulative meditative technique shapes the kind of subject you choose and the way you present it, and on Lúcháir I was going to post about a speaker called Joseph Murphy and his book, At the Edge, dealing with the survival of Gaelic culture in Ireland and Scotland.
I was also, since the end of October brings together death-and-renewal celebrations in both Celtic and Christian communities, going to pay tribute to all the saints in my life, living and dead, Catholic, Protestant, Quaker, Wiccan, Buddhist, Muslims and Jews, and atheists and agnostics aligned to all kinds of compassionate philosophies. I've chosen which tradition I want to follow myself, but I am grateful to many others, and I consider myself very fortunate to have lived among and learned from so many interesting and gifted people.
This has now taken on an added importance. I will be dealing with the outstanding posts on Burnedthumb and Lúcháir - next week, probably, life is pure mental just now - but there is an issue which has bugged me so many times in the last week, I just have to post about it. As it impacts both on questions of how we write and how we live together, it's going up on both blogs.
Recently I've been aware of
Jan Moir's poisonous and irresponsible outburst on the death of Steve Gately. As well as the unkindness of writing such stuff at a time of grief, I have issues with her irrational dismissal of the evidence from witnesses and from medical experts, in order to draw a conclusion that could not be other than hurtful
an email being circulated asserting that the holocaust is to be removed from the British curriculum in order to pacify Muslims. It further alleged that Muslims are holocaust-deniers. I know of no basis of truth for either of these statements, and, though it was passed on to me by someone who is only concerned to make sure that the holocaust is accurately remembered, the intemperate and irresponsible language used can only stir up hatred
the dismissal of David Nutt. Nutt seems to have been unnecessarily provocative, since the only reason ecstasy is safer than tobacco is that tobacco is 100% lethal, but on the other hand you can't ask people to give you the facts and then, when you don't like them, ask for some different ones.
The stramash over Jesus Queen of Hearts. No, I haven't seen it, but I've read what the author said, and when she says she is a Christian, and intended to write something that was thoughtful and to ask us to reflect deeply on the issue of trans-gender, I believe her. I don't believe her play is blasphemous and I'm not offended by it. But. That title looks like a parody, it's designed to grab the wrong sort of attention, and the poster is cheap and tacky and demeaning. It isn't surprising that many Christians get the impression that the whole thing is designed to mock and degrade them. Then you add to this the pompous self-righteous stance of some of the protesters, the posturing as if we had some sort of right to authority in the matter. We don't. We have one opinion among many. We are entitled to hold it, to express it and to live peacefully without being mocked for it, but we don't have the right to make everyone else accept it. And finally, the whooping and cheering of the media, trying to stir up a good fight, and forgetting that at either end of this story are decent thoughtful people, acting in good faith, and hurt by the exploitation of an issue which is so dear to them.

All these things seem very different, but in my head they have one thing in common, and that is abuse of the written word. In a free country we can think what you like, and say what you like, but once you put it into writing, you have the responsibility to make sure that what you have said conveys the message you meant, and to consider what impact it will have on those who hear it. If writers don't write with respect for what is true and what is sacred to their readers (and everyone has something they feel is sacred), we shouldn't be writing at all.

Friday, 23 October 2009

fairy tales and reinventions

In a casual throw-away line in my previous post, I said I should maybe try a Rumpelstiltskin or Baba Yaga sequence next, and the idea has grown on me since then. The Orpheus sequence was written as a fairly androcentric one, simply because the artist/muse thing seems to be such an androcentric issue, and it helped me think about some issues in a fairly uncluttered way. After all, the guy's side of the story is so familiar, and there was quite enough newness in what I wrote without going completely off-piste.

Also it's still a given in some levels of cultural thinking that male experience is normative for human. It's quite easy to assume that artist/doctor/traveller is male, and, in liberal quarters, that women can play too, now we're liberated. And we do, some of us. We read 'poet' and we identify completely with the experience and understanding and where poetry is the thing, not gender, why not? Of course Orpheus is me as much as all those guys, and I'm not pretending I don't have some of those illusions and pretensions either.

But sometimes the experience is different. It's not just biology or society or circumstances. Women's work , women's stories, women's maturation happen across different territory, not all of it domestic. But then domestic is also interesting is it not? I am thinking seriously about all the girl fairy-tales - not just the reinterpreted ones, but the ones where girls are always centre-stage, and marriage is not the only outcome - Vassilisa the Beautiful, Cap O'Rushes, Mother Holle. There is a lot that will bear thinking about, not only the mother-daughter relationship - I'm not convinced anyone needs to write any more about that - but sisters and neighbours and communities of women.

This will probably take quite a while. I am planning a new stage in the lúcháir project, which involves learning a whole bunch of stuff about photo-editing and HTML that I never expected to have to deal with, and family events and politics are claiming more of my attention than usual.

Watch out for The Wave on 5th December.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Orpheus Tradition

Someone suggested that my Eurydice Rising Sequence was so complicated and illusive that I should write a whole essay on the romance and ballad tradition, so I have. I'd be interested in comments from anyone who knows about it.

The Orpheus Tradition

The classical story of Orpheus is simple and well-known – Orpheus' beloved wife is stolen by Hades, and dies. Orpheus goes to the underworld to rescue her and plays so well that he is allowed to take her back, so long as he does not look behind to see if she is following him. He does look back, and she is lost forever, and Orpheus, distraught, is killed by Maenads because he refuses to play for them. It is told in many cultures and many formats, from Boethius' allegorical understanding of Eurydice as Soul, beguiled into Hell by the pleasures of the senses, rescued by Orpheus as Reason, but lost through his weakness and want of dedication, to Offenbach's irreverent satire on marriage and conventional thinking, in which both Orpheus and Eurydice are glad of the opportunity to set up with someone new. Everyone seemed to have their own take on what was happening, whether like the Orphic cultists, they believed that Orpheus had established the belief in life after death, or like Ovid, that he was the first homosexual.

What fascinated me most of all as I got to know more about the tradition, was that as the story was dispersed and retold, many versions did not end with tragedy. As the story moved north, it happened more and more that Orpheus actually got Eurydice back.

In the Breton lai, Sir Orfeo, Orpheus is both a knight and a king of England. His wife Herodys (I did recently hear an undergraduate without any classical background pronounce Eurydice like this – it made my day) is kidnapped by the King of Fairy as she slept under an 'ympe tree'. This is a grafted tree, distrusted because such tampering with nature was thought to be unnatural. In medieval times such a tree was believed to leave anyone who slept there vulnerable to the otherworld, and the image of a grafted tree was sometimes used, as Perdita does in A Winters Tale to symbolise a lack of integrity. Orfeo is so distraught with grief that he leaves the court and goes into the wilderness for ten years – a ritual time of trial called a 'moniage' . In Moniage 1 I have referred to the best known example of moniage in medieval English literature - the obscure but charming poem Maiden on the Mor Lay.

At the end of the ten years, Orfeo sees the a hunting party and discovers that it is the Wild Hunt (slua sidh in Irish folk tales) – the Fairy people on an expedition to the everyday world. Oddly enough, he does not recognise who these people are, but is reawakened to his own identity by remembering his former hunting days. He sees Herodys among the court, but she is not able to respond to him, and he follows the hunt into an underground world filled simultaneously with horrific visions of lost people, those dead by misadventure, or women dead in childbirth, murder victims, and lunatics - people who 'are thought dead and are not' – and beautiful visions of the wealth and luxury of a royal palace. He sees Herodys both sleeping under her tree, and as a queen dressed in gold at a banquet.

Orfeo performs as a minstrel and is promised whatever he likes as a reward. When he names Herodys, the King questions his fitness to marry her, but acknowledges that he has to be bound by his word, and he places no obstacle placed in the way of Herodys' return. When Orfeo returns to Winchester to reclaim his throne, he disguises himself as a beggar to test his steward's loyalty, and his welcomed out of loyalty to the absent king. The story ends with both marriage and kingdom restored, and the steward rewarded.

The Shetland ballad, King Orfeo, although similar in many ways, is a more simple 'fairy-taken' story which draws on the Celtic bardic tradition. The king of Ferry pierces King Orfeo's wife Isabel with a 'dart' and takes her away with him. Orfeo pursues them, but they disappear, leaving only a grey stone – the traditional gateway to the other world. He plays his pipes and is invited inside. Once there he demonstrates his expertise in the three modes of music expected of a bard : Goltraighe, 'the weeping strain', here called 'da notes o' noy'; or lament, Geantriaghe, 'the laughing strain', here called 'da notes o' joy', or dance music; and Suantraighe, and 'the sleeping strain' or lullaby, which the ballad describes as 'da god gabber reel/dat meicht ha made a sick hert hale'. In Irish tradition the suantraighe makes anyone who is awake fall asleep, and anyone who is sick becomes well. He claims, and is granted Isabel as his reward, and on his return, not only his wife but his kingdom is restored to him.

The many symbolic values encompassed by Eurydice, who represents soul, conscience, maturity, muse and social identity, as well as lover, and the different outcomes gave me a lot to play with. It gave me the opportunity to see Orpheus as many different artists – Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Thomas the Rhymer and Gerald Way from the emo-band My Chemical Romance. I could use the multi-layered tradition to examine the use of poetry – and art in general; the role of an artist in society, the way an artist integrates – or fails to integrate – the practice of his art with his personal life, the nature of love, and the very odd relationship between artist and muse. The old-fashioned exclusive language here is deliberate. Women, particularly women of my generation, negotiate this terrain differently – maybe I should try a Rumpelstiltskin or a Baba Yagar sequence next time!

In my version, Eurydice is not dead or stolen by fairies;she is mad, and she and Orpheus are locked in a co-dependent relationship which may or may not destroy both of them. Whether either one of them gets out of hell depends on Orpheus' willingness to come to a sound understanding of who he is, and set Eurydice free.

This might be a good time to acknowledge the influence of my supervisor way back when I did my MLitt. Felicity J Riddy is not only a brilliant medievalist, but was also a wonderful teacher and mentor. And she wrote an essay on Sir Orfeo (The Uses of the Past in Sir Orfeo published in the Yearbook of English Studies vol6 1976) which started me on my interest in the Orpheus tradtion

Friday, 25 September 2009


It seems a long time since I put anything up here, and of course it is. Family goings on, etc. have got in the way. In a large family like mine there's always something going on, but we did have a whole swathe of people getting ill and needing attention, and I got ill myself and so it goes.
It hasn't all been family and dull stuff, however. My Zen folk music poem, Sean Nos was accepted by Brittle Star and will appear next week, and I've put together two more submissions, which I suppose will take the usual ages to feedback. When I was at Lumb Bank I got some useful background about why magazines sometimes take so long, such that frankly, sometimes you have to be grateful that they get back to you at all. And it makes those editors - Sally Evans, Joy Hendry, Louise Hooper in my experience - you may know more - who take the time to be kind and constructive, so much more to be cherished.
Come to think of it, good, honest accurate criticism is worth its weight in gold from whatever source. I was going to give a roll of honour, but I bet I'd forget someone. I'll just take the opportunity to thank you, all of you.

Monday, 31 August 2009

poetry course Lumb Bank

A couple of weeks ago I did an Arvon course at Lumb Bank, which I found a very challenging, but ultimately extremely rewarding experience. It was very odd to be in a house with so many other people - even Nunraw, which isn't silent or peaceful any more didn't make the same sort of social demands. It was also odd to be with so many people taking poetry so very seriously. You'd think the Callander poetry Festival would be the same, but it isn't - there's a relaxed, festive atmosphere, something to do with so many of us being friends, or with the atmosphere Sally and Ian King create, which was quite different from Lumb Bank.

I don't mean that it was competitive or pompous or elitist - on the contrary. Most of those who had been to Arvon weeks before remarked on how well we were getting on, and how nice everyone was. But it was very serious, and this was both strange and liberating compared with more mainstream environments where poetry is at best peripheral, if not downright irrelevant.

Being in what felt like a very foreign country, poetically speaking, did bring out major differences between the English and the Scottish poetry scene. English poetry seems more high-brow - downright academic, in fact, at its worst, dreary, cold, contrived and cerebral. At its best it's powerful, elegant and exquisite. It's a sort of climax culture.From here it looks as if there's a consensus about what they like and want from poetry, and they have evolved a system to make it more and more like that.

Scotland, on the other hand feels like second growth scrub. Lots of weeds, lots of vigour, much more diverse and sustainable, original, slightly renegade, very much more experimental. We have much more language to play with, more different kinds of publishers and readers, much more confidence - but we could do with a bit more intellectual rigour. We have stopped looking to England for approval quite so much, and the independent voice is coming through, but our poetry needs the sort of development that traditional music has had - an awareness of the enormous potential within the form, a respect for craftsmanship and technique, and a refusal to settle for less than the best.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

poetic adventures

On Saturday I read at Word Power Books in Edinburgh, at a do organised by Understanding Poetry magazine. It was a very interesting night, for two reasons. One was the work of a dynamic young poet called Michael Pederson who read from his first collection, a chapbook to be published the very next day by an outfit called Koo Press, based in Aberdeen. You can see the poems he read on his web-site, and there's a link there to Koo press, as well. Very well worth a look.
The other one was the bookshop. I'd never been there before, and never even knew of its existence until I got the invitation. It had a brilliant selection of poetry, including magazines and pamphlets, which put even the Glasgow Borders to shame, plus the sort of radical politics of all dimensions, mythology, history, cooking and gardening books that make my teeth water. I had forgotten how exciting a radical mindset can be!

Friday, 21 August 2009

at the Fringe

I have finally confirmed that I will be reading at the Book Fringe Festival in Word Power Books (43 West Nicholson Street) on Saturday (i.e 22nd August). Event begins at seven o'clock and admission is free.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

National Deaf Youth Theatre

I hope you enjoy this clip from the National Deaf Youth Theatre. People who know my poem Word to Sign: Translating Swallows will get some idea what it is all about now!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

neo geo-poetics3

Two writers stand out for me from the Atlantic Islands Festival as significant pointers for the way forward for geopoetics. These are Norman Bissell, whose book Slate, Sea and Sky formed the basis for Mark Sheridan's Atlantic Island Suite, and Jamie Whittle, an environmental lawyer who wrote about all aspects of the Findhorn in his book White River, an account of a canoeing trip he took up and down the full length of the River.

It has to be said that Kenneth White is a hard model to follow. His stripped to the bone simplicity and precision can sometimes lead, in lesser hands, to some very impoverished and flat writing, lacking his driving energy and wit - and let's be fair, even Kenneth White doesn't get away with it all the time! There's a temptation, too, to go for buzz-words and motifs (like herons) without establishing an equal context to that of White's mountainous learning. I don't think either of these writers can be said to have escaped entirely from these temptations.

But on the plus side, there is no sense of authorial self-obtrusion in these books. Places, animals, the challenges of rough country and wild weather, are allowed to speak for themselves. And they have both tapped in, at a profound level, to what I perceive to be the essence of the geopoetic vision.Their art, work and personal philosophy are indeed grounded in an open-eyed and intelligent awareness of what it means to live on the planet earth. And they both include what most of us felt to be the missing dimensions - a sense of locality and community.

It is not the earth as a concept or even as an experience that shapes Norman Bissell's poetry, it is the island of Luing in particular, and its people, past, present and future; he knows it in a way we are never confident that Kenneth White knows anywhere. It is not only the wild landscape that inspires and challenges Jamie Whittle, it is all the landscape and all the communities - fish, forest, farmers, grouse, walkers and canoeists - who live within it.

Both books bring together a wide range of knowledge and experience. Norman Bissell applies ambitious artistic practice and intellectual rigour to what might otherwise be the escapist idyll or the mundane backwater of island living. Jamie Whittle combines his legal training with sport, knowledge of the lives of indigenous communities and an informed passion for Scotland's natural heritage. Neither is looking to the past for nostalgic solutions, and neither indulges in preaching or tub-thumping. They add what I need to feel comfortable with geopoetics - warmth and humanity - a sense of involvement that might lead in due time,to wise and compassionate action.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

neo-geo-poetics 2

The big question about geopoetics is: Is it the work of Kenneth White, and therefore absolutely and exactly just what he says it is, or is it something bigger, broader, and more generally applicable? What I mean is, is it like the theory of evolution or psychoanalysis, which depended on Darwin, Freud and Jung for their very existence, but which have been taken beyond the original flaws and limits of the original thinking to become usable disciplines of general science?
There is a case for leaving it simply as the definition of Kenneth White's own work. He is an original, outstandingly intelligent and remarkably diverse thinker, with the vision to bring together more different insights and source materials than almost anyone else on the planet. And he expresses himself with a verve and precision and elegant economy that belies the enormous amount of work behind some of his more outrageous assertions.
This hardly justifies his professed ambitions to reform the state of education and culture as we know it. And, moreover, it fails to take on board his influence on many other artists and poets. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that I would not be writing poetry now if I hadn't read him in the early nineties, and realised that it is possible to operate in a mind-field where my deepest interests can come together and fertilise each other rather than fitting into separate 'appropriate' boxes.
It also fails to recognise a big shift in the way we are all thinking, writing and creating, perhaps the biggest since the development of Courtly Love in the early Middle Ages.
Let's be really brutally simplistic (I'm drawing heavily on C.S. Lewis' Allegory of Love, now, despite all its limitations, just to make it easier to see the direction of thought) and say that, broadly speaking, the big thing in literature, the arena where the story takes place, before the twelfth century, was the hero/heroine confronting his/her destiny. After then, it was love. Now more and more we find that the arena artists/campaigners/academics want to work in is the relationship of the central character with the earth. It's everywhere. Middle-aged heroines finish up with a garden instead of a marriage. Young men tackle mountains or oceans instead of criminals. Nature writing has become a recognised literary genre and is taught at Arvon courses. Ethical concerns are now about pollution, biodiversity and climate change, as well as political or personal relationships. Kenneth White has given geopoetics a flying start to organise our thinking in this new arena.
But the bigger it gets, and the more it develops, the more it has to go beyond Kenneth White's original brief. We need a new generation of geopoetical thinkers, who will translate the work of solitary intellectual nomads into the life of communities.
This will have to wait until tomorrow, when I will review the work of Jamie Whittle and Norman Bissell and see where that gets us.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


Although the thing I was at last week was called the Atlantic Islands Festival, it was also the summer school for the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, and many of the speakers talked about the impact of geopoetics, and in particular the work of Kenneth White on their particular discipline and artistic practice.

We struggled, though, to find a workable and concise definition of what we meant by geopoetics. Norman Bissell provided an overview at the start of the school, which may be rather brutally summarised as
1. a world view that is critical of western philosophy and civilisation in particular the division between mind and body and the isolation of the human from nature.
2. it has a holistic view of the universe - a poetics which places the planet earth at the centre of experience.
3. it is influenced by people Kenneth White defines as 'intellectual nomads'
4. it has a new sense of world combining the responses of the intelligence and the senses, using techniques such as meditation or tai chi which 'decondition' the mind to produce a poetics which is the expression of this interaction, in language but also in all forms of artistic expression. It encourages collaboration and multi-media work. involves networking with all forms of intellectual and scientific knowledge and activity.
There are some extraordinarily sweeping statements here, and if we go into it, we can find plenty of ignorance, prejudice and some rather neat moving of the goal-posts which leave Kenneth White in the privileged position of defining the game and imposing his own rule. However.
It is certainly the case that modern civilisation consists of a lot of over-specialised and over-organised (but seriously under-educated)individuals who are capable of living a lifetime in ignorance of what the weather is like or where their food is coming from. We know we are not as aware of the seasons or the state of the moon and tides as our parents were. Many of us can't identify common wild-flowers, or lay a fire or set a budget without a calculator. Scientists do not know history. Linguists don't understand physics. In short we no longer have our feet on the ground. We don't know who we are or what we really want or what is likely to happen to us.
Geopoetics has a counter to this, and the summer school was an excellent demonstration. We had, among other things, film, poetry, art, sculpture, botany, geology, history, and tai chi. But the most common comment, which came over and over again, was, "It leaves so much out."
Mostly this came from women. Geopoetics is overwhelmingly a guys' game, and it's not because the guys are mean and won't let us play. On the contrary, the guys are not mean at all. But women do not get the 'intellectual nomad' thing. It's not just that society makes it hard for women to be nomads ( a real issue, though, nonetheless), we just don't seem, by and large, to think like that. It's not that we can't stop worrying about the state of the kitchen and has someone remembered to feed the cat, it is simply that if you have ever undertaken those responsibilities, you don't see the world in quite the same way. It's not even the difference between Ents and Ent-wives (remember Tolkien saying the Ent-wives had gardens so that things would grow where they set them?). Even Tolkien's Ents, though freer and more nomadic than the Ent-wives, were shepherds and took care of the forests. I, for one, found it hard to believe in the value of a world-view that does not lead to involvement and action.
This is where we get to the next generation of geopoetical thinking, and I'll get to it tomorrow.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Atlantic Islands Festival

This was a big event, which I have already mentioned on Luchair (my keyboard isn't recognising accents this morning!), and which will have ongoing resonances with a lot of my work over the next few months.

There was a lot of interesting work in many genres and media, but particularly impressive were Richard Ashrowan's lovely films (see more here), and the lovely Atlantic Islands Suite, which premiered on Wednesday, and which I reviewed here.

Now I'm home for a couple of weeks, writing slate poems and star poems and grass poems, until I go to an Arvon course in August.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Gillian Clarke: A Recipe for Water

Life is too short to review books you don't like, so you can take it as read that this is good poetry.
It's lucid and serene, attentive and intelligent. It deals with water as sea, snow glacier and river, and talks incisively about global warming without a lot of finger-pointing and shouting. Look at this quiet but pointed conclusion to Solstice where she makes the connection between a spendthrift extravagance of Christmas lights and global warming.

and we'll know, for the pleasures of here and now,
we are borrowing bling from the glacier, slipping
Greenland's shoulder from its wrap of snow

No preaching, but a lovely image for a chilling fact.

Climate change is a hot topic, but Gillian Clarke extends her consideration of water into many other dimensions. Water, in her hands, is also language, tradition, geography, relationship, connection, transformation, currency. This is easy to read poetry, but not simple.

There are poems about other things too, birds, plants, minerals, architecture, and one about rugby, which I never thought I would be able to read with pleasure. I bought this book for the intriguing title, but I'm loving it as much for the poems about Welsh, about fire, about horsetails.

I was looking for something appropriate to finish this review off, but didn't really find it until I read Jamie Whittle's book White River, where he says "when you start studying a river, you begin to see that it is connected to everything else on the planet".

This is exactly the feeling I got from Gillian Clarke's book.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Neil Gunn Competion

Not to boast, but to reveal this beautiful certificate - check those Pictish fishes!
Seriously, though, I had a wonderful day in Inverness yesterday at the Award Ceremony for the Neil Gunn Writing Competition. It was held in the Town House, a stone building of such grace and friendliness it puts the average council offices to shame, and was a joy from start to finish. There were several categories to the competition, and special mention should go to Thurso High School which provided an impressive proportion of the secondary school winners. Then we got to the poetry. I can't recommend highly enough James Knox Whittet's overall winning poem Cuttings, but the others were excellent also.

There was an excellent lunch after that, when I was able to talk to two of the other winners,Great guys, both, in very different ways) and to Jon Miller, who turned out to be the person who accepted the poems for last year's Northwords Now.

And then I met Katharine Stewart! I'll write more about her on Lúcháir, I think, but she has been a favourite writer of mine for about twenty years. She is coming up to ninety-five now, and was so kind to me when Paul asked if I could be introduced, though a little bemused, I think by my enthusiasm.

It was perfect weather, and Inverness was green and peaceful under the sun and wind. Three of us later bumped into each other at Leakey's, The justifiably famous second-hand bookshop - how could we be in Inverness and not go to Leakey's?

Thanks should go to the Neil Gunn Trust for setting up the competition and to all the funders, but especially to the organiser, Area Libraries Officer Charlotte Macarthur, who was responsible for looking after everyone, making sure that the day went without a hitch, and was so helpful to everyone throughout the whole competition.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

website down

The company hosting my website, seems to have gone bust, taking the website with it. There will be a new one up shortly, as soon as my consultant (i.e. daughter Naomi) gets over the horrible flu she's had.
In the meantime, I'm preparing for a reading I'll be giving on Sunday 5th July at the Atlantic Islands Festival . This looks like being a fabulous event - Naomi described it as 'fantasy poets' camp' which is about right. The most especially interesting thing turns out to be a presentation from Jacqui McDonald about her life in folk music. Jacqui turns out to be half of the legendary folk group Jacqui and Bridie who were big in Liverpool in the early days of the folk revival, alongside the Spinners, Pete MCGovern (who wrote the Liverpool Lullaby that Cilla Black sang) and Brian Jacques who later went on to write the Redwall series of children's books.
Back in the day when I had delusions that I would be a folk singer, I sang in Jacqui and Bridie's club. Can't remember what we did for the life of me. I Once Loved a Lad, and Lizzie Lindsay, probably, or Ewan McColl and Irish rebel songs (gave up on them later when things got too serious) or drinking songs or sea shanties - couldn't get away from them in Liverpool then. I think I played tin whistle then too. Now I only play for my grand-daughter!

Thursday, 28 May 2009

a world of poetry

One of these days I will have to review some of the new poetry that has fallen into my lap lately. I am a sucker for books with water in the title so I have Matthew Hollis' Groundwater and Gillian Clarke's A Recipe for Water, which have stunned and excited me.
Then there was Alan Jamieson's video poems - beautiful combinations of text and sound and image which I'd love to find a way to share.
Then there will be the Atlantic Islands Festival on the island of Luing from 4th-11th July
which has been organised by Norman Bissell at the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. I don't know how he has managed to pack so much interesting stuff into one week, but it is truly impressive, and I am looking forward very much to taking part.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

From Wood to Ridge Sorley Maclean

Or Somhairle Macgilleain as he would have written it in Gaelic. The book I've been reading is the Penguin collection of poems with a simultaneous translation From Wood to Ridge. It is beautiful and powerful, and completely gives the lie to people who see Gaelic as an archaic language only fit for conveying pastoral nostalgia, dealing as it does with love, war, and the politics of an uncompromisingly modern conflict between the personal and political.
I confess it leaves me almost speechless. It's always hard to evaluate a poetry that is not in its original language - you can't be sure how much of what you are getting was in the original intention and how much has been filtered out, or imported in, by the process of translation.
It's possible that you can get an enriching, two poems for the price of one, by translating - as I put it in a poem called Translating Swallows " I warm my thought at another mind's fire." You can see this in Seamus Heaney's Midnight Verdict, for instance, where you get Heaney as well as Ovid and Brian Merriman - and in fact you get three, there because the juxtaposition of extract from The Metamorphoses and The Midnight Court also allows the two poems to comment on each other and create a third vision.
But the problem with Sorley Maclean's poetry is that it is such a powerful synthesis of poetic form, language, land and culture, that I can't get much out of it without feeling overwhelmed by how much I'm missing. I can't help feeling that all poetry should aspire to this.
Here is a link to the official Sorley Maclean website.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

a new outlook

The new study is at the front of the house, and I'm only just getting used to the view. The old one (which was so small and packed that I once referred to it as the origami bookbox) looked out over the back garden bounded on one side by the hedge - a sparrow high-rise tenement - and on the other by the side of the utility room , the greenhouse and the fence. It was very sunny, enclosed, focussed, green and domestic.

The new one is at the front, facing North, and overlooks the street. It also overlooks the high stone wall which is all you can see downstairs into the neighbours' front gardens and windows, so I feel much more part of the bustle of village life, especially now while the construction work is going on.

But it also overlooks the orchard, the last of the many for which the village used to be famous in the days of the Glasgow Boys, who would take houses here and paint, and try to get acquainted with the girls at Denovan's art school at Craigmill. One of these was the famous country diary lady, Edith Holden, who studied there for a while, and refers to a holiday there in the summer of her famous book. The trees on this side of the house are taller and different birds hang out in them, and in the winter you can see beyond them to the Ochils in the distance - a very different perspective.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

wilderness poetry

I had the feeling that I blogged about Chinese rivers-and-mountains poetry before, but maybe that was on Lúcháir. Last year at the Callander poetry festival Larry Butler and Colin Will introduced me to the concept of 'wilderness poetry' and Larry recommended Mountain Home, an anthology of this sort of thing, edited and translated by David Hinton.

I loved it. It has a lot in common with what I'm trying to do with my 'gleam of light on water' poems - Hinton sums it up as 'clarity and simplicity, silence and open emptiness'. It is elegant and spare, full of beautiful natural images and profoundly philosophical, which I love.

The poems in this collection were written between 365 and 1206 - about contemporary with the late Latin and goliard poets of Europe. Both respond to major cultural and economic collapse by a retreat to rural solitude and reflection. Wang Wei reminds me a bit of Hilary of Poitiers, both on their rural farms, missing companions of their youth, both reflecting on loss and change.

The differences in philosophy seem less stark than you would first think. The school of Chartres and the Victorines would have had less bother with the 'ten thousand things' than your average post-Descartes twenty-first century thinker or post- Romantic poet. The chief difference, even with the greenest of us, is that we still tend to think and write about nature in the context of human needs and aspirations, whereas wilderness poetry puts the human firmly in the context of nature. Less alienating than haiku, less self-regarding than the Romantics, it offers a discipline of thought and response that I find very appealing. It's the nearest I get, in poetry, to the Irish tradition of sean nos singing.

The major difference I find between China and Europe is that in Europe poetry and philosophy fell into the hands of what seem, compared with the Chinese, very young and passionately enthusiastic people. The Chinese poets are older, more reflective, sometimes bitter, sometimes compassionate, often melancholy. By contrast the goliards seem relatively brash and immature, passionate, undisciplined, but fresh lively, adventurous. I'm going to learn a lot from the Chinese, but I think my heart is with the goliards.They sound a note which I don't get from Wilderness poetry, but which I need. Delight.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Digging for Bait

Picture by Paul Rimmer, a rock pool at Ardnamurchan.

This is one of the poems from The Eurydice Rising sequence, which was published in poetry Scotland last year. It has a lot of Shetland references because I was originally inspired by the Shetland ballad King Orfeo, (it's quoted in the first stanza), in which Orpheus is a piper, and actually gets Eurydice back. The title is also a Shetland reference. If you don't want to tell where you got your bait for fishing you would say Sjussamillabakka or stakamillabakka - as non-committal as you could get!

Digging for Bait

Da notes o’ joy.
Stakkamillabakka –
Da notes o’ noy.
Sjussamillabakka –
Da god gabber reel,
dat meicht ha’ made a sick hert hale.

Between the sea and the shore.
Stakkamillabakka –
Between the rocks and the shore.
Is where I got this poem,
On water-polished shingle, where the sea
Drains bubbling
Over ribbed and wrinkled sand
And popping bladderwrack.
I found it in a rock-pool, cold as shadow,
With a gull’s feather floating in it,
And a thin blue sheen of petrol
Hazed like a mussel shell.

Sjussamillabakka –
The place without landmarks.
Stakkamillabakka –
Don’t look back.
Sjussamillabakka –
Never the same place twice.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Northwords Now

Northwords Now have a web-site, and my poems - also Sally Evans and the translations of Lorca by Christie Williamson - are up on it, though you'd better download the pdf, or you'll go cross-eyed reading the font. Northwords Now is based in the Highlands and distributed free through libraries and bookshops.
You can find it here


I'm just re-reading Jen Hadfield's Nigh-No-Place because I'm going to see her read on Thursday at SCoP, Stirling University on Thursday. I'm finding them very interesting, they start arguments in my head, conversations about geography and poems about wind and rock-pools.
For all the collection is called Nigh-No-Place, the poems seem very much rooted in the places she is in, Alberta or Shetland, growing from deep awareness of the specifics of weather and landscape - snow, wind and hail, 'hacked wet chunk of mountain,''fences strung with trembling streamers'.
They are embodied sensual poems, full of light, sound and movement, popping gravel and ice in a glass like the notes of a mandolin, like the sound of a train passing, swirling hail, the way the salmon's sinuous fighting upstream echoes the movement of the river's meanders, the blinks of sunlight you register a lot when warmth is fitful and fickle.
I especially liked Daed-traa :
'I go to the rock-pool at the slack of the tide
to mind me what my poetry's for'
which is fabulous.
It reminds me a lot of my Digging for Bait, - one of the Eurydice Rising poems, which makes me think again about the myths I was hatching about the differences between male and female attitudes towards the writing of poems. I might post it here later, but not today. Today I want to make you think about Jen Hadfield's poems. Go read some.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Stirling's makar

Stirling installed its first Makar on Friday - Magi Gibson. She is a really good poet, and a great teacher and I think she will do a lot to encourage people to read and write poetry.
The ceremony took place in the stunningly beautiful Holy Rude Church in Stirling. Almost all the poets I could think of in Stirling were there, except Richie and Steph and Megan, plus councillors, library staff and the Literary Society. The turn out was really impressive, which I hope is a good sign.
Ruari Watson introduced Magi, and Magi read her poems - a wide variety of her work, some feminist and radical, some personal,some moving and vivid, some less so. Then some children from Bannockburn Primary read their poems - which were very much better than the average. I'd say that those two will be people to watch later on, except that at eight the most intelligent children write the best, and you can't say which way their intelligence will take them.
And then there was tea and elegant little cakes, carrot cake and fruit slices and little tartlets the size of thimbles with three blueberries on. And I sloped off into the drizzle and went home.

Friday, 13 February 2009

all gone quiet

It's cold. It hasn't snowed much to complain about here, we're too close to sea level, but the three and a half snowflakes that did fall are still sitting among the snowdrops and fennel stems because the ground is too cold and hard to melt them. I'm putting together a sequence of Irish poems into a collection called Rushlight. There are more of them than I realised.
All the sick people here are getting better - the grand-daughter is even well enough to begin pinching food from other kids' plates at nursery. The house is gradually becoming less silted up with redundant paperwork, books, utensils that might be useful one day and invoices for things we no longer possess. I even started gardening again, until the snow came back, and now the ground is too hard.
Meantime the rest of the country seems to have totally seized up.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

February already

January got eaten by family illnesses, de-cluttering the house, preparing the next chunk of work for the Lúcháir project and structuring Recusant - which I think I might have to call Who Time Sleeps Withal, and learning how to use my new, very shiny, and very complicated phone. It seems to do everything but make me a cup of tea.

Also I am now convinced that cheese causes migraines. Coffee and chocolate do too, but somehow I seem to find substitutes for them.
Let's hope that February gets better. I have plans ---

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

the fence is steaming

The sky was clear this morning, but the pond didn't look frozen, so I was surprised to find the grass crunching under my feet and the greenhouse frozen shut. In spite of the sun the thermometer says it's -2C, and the fence, which faces east is steaming gently. There was a flight of geese overhead - I wish I could identify them from their calls as the experts do, but I can't -and the sparrow colony is moving in to pick up the seed that the blue-tits and coal tits scatter from the feeder.
Inside the house things are slow. Everybody but me seems to be just a bit below par and out of sorts, but we are still making progress with sorting out that mountains of junk we have accumulated over the past year. The makeover season seems to have started in the village and there are two lots of tradesmen parked outside the house (nothing to do with us, though).
Meantime I have no less than sixteen poems under construction, and I'm going back for another one I have finished three times now, but still needs something - thoughts about bitterns, probably. Naomi's godmother told me once that when she came to the village in the sixties there were bitterns in the reed-beds. Not any more there aren't.
Also Recusant got a hell of a shove just before Christmas. It's going to be a very interesting thing to do. It's going to focus on time, and have about six different layers. I'm glad about this. Front row had an item about two novelists who have just produced novels about archaeologists, so I was definitely needing a different look!