Friday, 24 December 2010

Happy Christmas

My family were big on the Be-good-or-Father-Christmas-won't-come theme, at least in theory. And when I was four, nearly five and just about to start school, I wanted a doll for Christmas SO MUCH, but I'd been naughty, and got myself into bother. There was no chance. I hung up my stockings like my brothers (my sister wouldn't be born for another six weeks) but I knew it wasn't happening. No doll for me.

I was always the first to wake up in our house, and I was quite surprised to find a bundle of toys at the end of my bed. I imagined books and coloured pencils and small things like that. But there, to my complete amazement, on the top of the heap was not one, but TWO dolls, a girl and a boy.

I never forget that moment when resignation and disappointment turned to joy. I know that lots of people have had a rough year this year - illness, accidents, breakups, finanacial disasters, job disappointments, they've all happened to people I hold dear. And a lot of people aren't expecting much out of next year either. But my Christmas wish is that it will deliver, not only what you were wanting, but TWICE as much as you could possibly hope for.

Pax et bene!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas legends

Everyone knows the Christmas story, of course, but a lot of other legends accrued around it, many to do with the Flight into Egypt. So just for fun, here are some of my favourites.

The Kindly Spider

When Mary and Joseph took the Christ-Child into Egypt to escape from Herod, they stopped to rest in a cave overnight. In the morning Herod's soldiers came up after them and paused at the cave door to see if they were inside. But a spider had spent all night spinning so many webs all over the cave and across the entrance, that they thought nobody could possibly have gone into it for many years, and went away. Mary blessed the spider for protecting them, and as they left all the webs turned to silver and gold, and that is why we hang tinsel on our trees to this very day.

The Juniper Tree
When the Holy Family were escaping to Egypt, Herod's soldiers came up so close behind them that they asked the trees to shelter them. The only one which agreed to do it was a hollow juniper tree, which allowed them to hide inside. In gratitude, Mary promised that the juniper tree would keep its green needles all the year round. And that is why we bring evergreen trees into our homes at Christmas to this very day.

Those stories are from Germany. This is an Irish one, and it's a little different.

The Cockroach and the Beetle
When Mary and Joseph were taking the Christ-Child to Egypt, they were going past a field where the farmer was sowing wheat. Mary saw Herod's soldiers in the distance far behind them, but catching up. She blessed the field, and overnight the wheat sprouted until by morning it was ready to harvest.

When the soldiers passed they saw a beetle in the road and they asked if the beetle had seen Mary and Joseph.

"They came through here when the farmer was sowing the corn," said the beetle.

"That was yesterday!" said a cockroach.

"But you're a dirty liar," said the beetle.

"No crop could grow that quickly," said the soldiers. "We've lost them."

And they went home. But that is why you have to stand on a cockroach whenever you see one, to this very day.

It's time to wrap presents and start the big cook. I hope you are all warm and safe and that you all have a wonderful holiday this Christmas.

Monday, 13 December 2010


The title of this post is not a reference to the weather, which is once again frosty. The ice was melting fine until yesterday and now there is frost on the melted bits and ice on the snow and walking is a nightmare.It's a reference to Thoreau's Walden, which I have now finished reading, and which I found I liked much better than I thought I would. I loved the way he got to know the setting of his little hut, not only the neighbours and the wild-life, but the stones and the water - and especially the ice.

I'm having some thoughts about ice myself just now:
The sky opens blue windows
between flat grey shuttered clouds.
A white snow-mist
climbs the blck walls of the hill.
Ice curdled
with half a foot of new snow
chokes the river.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

the birds of the air

This is Airthrey Loch at the university, almost completely frozen on Sunday, and I imagine it will be even worse today. Wwe had six inches of snow yesterday morning and it froze solid last night as the temperature went down to -12 and it hasn't reached 0 yet, in spite of bright sunshine. No-one is going anywhere today, and we are busily feeding birds.

So far today we have seen
blue tits, coal tits and great tits
hedge sparrows and house sparrows
blackbirds and starlings
chaffinches and goldfinches
town pigeons and woodpigeons, who have flattened the snow where they have walked all over it, making it easier for small birds to find the seed
and three reed buntings, shy birds who only come into the garden in very cold weather.

The forecast is for another really cold night and another very cold day tomorrow before the thaw arrives. Last time we had this much snow and a fast thaw, there was a flood, as it coincided with the spring tides, but by the time the snow melts this will be over and done.

Other than that I have been reading Thoreau's Walden for the first time - a rather shameful admission I'd have thought - and, though he was an inspiration to many writers I admire very much, I'm actually finding him a bit of a grumpy old man (though he was, I believe, rather young for the position at the time) and a thumping literary and spiritual snob. It's a struggle.

But I do like the comment: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."

I have added a lot more to the Resources pages on the main web-site, mostly blogs, but also three new poetry books. Two of them were published this year but the other one just took me a while to discover - enjoy.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

deep and crisp and even

This was our garden on Tuesday. It's not much different now, so I guess there will be no garlic planted yetawhile. There is much bird activity at the feeders, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, bluetits and great tits - and pigeons, of course - and the cold weather is bringing in chaffinches, goldfinches and yellowhammers. There were five there this morning - I've never seen so many.

We have mostly stayed in the house and so finally the new look website is up. It's a work in progress! There are headings for recipes, but no recipes, and I want to add blog lists to the resources pages, but they will come in time.

We did go for a walk between showers on Monday, and saw bullfinches on the hawthorns, and buzzards over the fields. We turned for home as the sky clouded over, and saw a deer cross the road, leap the fence and disappear into the trees.I wasn't quick enough to photograph it, but I did get this:

The light was fading now, as cloud built up and the sun went down. The city looked wonderful in the snow.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

walking the territory haikus

bright birch leaves spinning
down the still frosty morning
gold on silver grass

mist on the river
heron stalks the reed beds
light grows, winter bites

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

walking the territory

It was cold this morning! And damp.I went for a walk along the road out of the village, remembering the camera for once. This is what you see as you leave the houses behind.

This week I've been re-vamping the Lúcháir website. It's a big process, giving the whole thing a fresher look - more colours, more space and a lighter feel - and a better focus. The process will include small tweaks to this blog, too, now that it covers both the sites.

As part of the process I wanted to get some photos of the soft rush (the original luachair which inspired me). Here's one.

I got quite carried away.

I love this willow. There is a small burn over there where some people claim to have seen kingfishers. I never have.

And this is one of the views that sold our new house to me when we first saw it, nearly thirty years ago.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Armistice day

I remember Armistice Day from my childhood as a relic of an outmoded jingoistic attitude that nobody seemed to find relevant. Hardly anyone wore poppies, and nobody wanted to talk about the war. In Liverpool we were still living with undeveloped bomb-sites in the seventies, and we felt it was more than time we moved on and created something new and worthwhile.

So it seems odd to find it creeping back. I don't think it's altogether true that it's some sort of plot to make our current wars seem acceptable and even noble, though I'm prepared to believe that governments are taking advantage of the phenomenon. It seems to come from somewhere else. A vague anxiety about our place in the world, a feeling that we are surrounded by people we can't trust, and we need to believe that we can - and should - fight our way out of it.

I'm not buying it. I know that sometimes you have to fight. And sometimes you find yourself in a fight when you didn't expect it. But mostly you don't. Mostly there are better options you should try first. Mostly, war is the worst response you can make, the most destructive, and the most corrupting, and then you finish up having to negotiate anyway.

But today, with heroes on our minds, I am thinking of three heroes that I know, two in war-time, one in ordinary lfe.

One is Hugh Shields, a Lovat Scout in the Second Waorld War and an expert in explosives. He seems to have been in everything - Dunkirk, the D-Day landings, the Shetland Bus, helping the resistance in Norway. And then at the end he went to bring home prisoners from the Japanese prisoner-of war camps. What he saw there shocked hi. He held a six-foot soldier worn to a skeleton and light as a child in his arms as he died, and he knew than than war had achieved nothing. When the government sent him the forms to apply for his medals, he put them on the fire, and he wrote back saying 'I have four sons, and I'm coming home to make pacifists out of the lot of them'. And he did. He took every opportunity to talk to the younger generations about the war, and encourage them to work for peace. He had alzheimers when we knew him, and his grip on the current world became more and more intermittent. But his last message was to our youngest daughter, encouraging her to keep on.

The second is Charles Rankine, who was a Japanese prisoner of war and suffered terribly. He told me how grateful he was to see the mushroom cloud at Horoshima, because he knew it meant the end of the war. Unlike Hugh, he never became a pacifist at all - in fact quite the reverse, he was often bitter. But as a mining engineer, he was forced to work on the Bridge over the River Kwai, and on one occasion he realised that the Japanese were about to do something with explosives that was going to kill people, and he warned them about it. To the end of his life he wondered if he should have done that, or if he should have let them go ahead, and sabotage the bridge. And when the camp was liberated the commander who had pistol-whipped him (among other things) came and asked for forgiveness, and Charles forgave him. And to the end of his life he wondered about that too. I always said he should, but as I get older, I realise the difficulty of those choices, and honour him.

The third is going to remain anonymous, because it's an ongoing story and not mine to tell. But it isn't only in war that people have to stand up for justice and discipline, and create peace and a new way of living. It's something we have to do for ourselves in our ordinary lives, every day.

Monday, 8 November 2010

James Kirkup Poetry Competition

Here is a poetry competition which I can wholeheartedly recommend poets to enter.
First of all, it's free. Red Squirrel don't believe in charging for entrance to competitions.
Second, when I did it last year, it was a thoroughly wonderful experience from start to finish. I met the judges and heard them talk about the care they had taken to read and consider all the entries. The competition attracted work of a very high standard, so to be included in the anthology as I was, is a very affirming event. The organisation was terrific, and the award-giving was a warm and friendly occasion when we got to meet not only other Red Squirrel authors (likewise friendly and very interesting people), but also the staff of South Shields library and James Kirkup enthisiasts who turned out in force.

So if you've ever submitted your poem and paid £5 for the privilege (and more, sometimes, this year), only for it to disappear into a black hole, try this. No-one could guarantee prizes, but you can be sure you entry has been given all the care and respect you could want.

Details here

Sunday, 7 November 2010

the territory in November

What a week this has been! Last weekend I was in Edinburgh for the Radical Book Fair and the AGM of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics but didn't stay to check it out as I wasn't feeling up to much, and couldn't wait to get home. It turned out that I had shingles, which effectualy put paid to any plans I might have had for the week. I don't think I've done much apart from sit by the fire and read thrillers and watch day-time television. My brain went to sleep and I couldn't take in anything more demanding.

Outside, however, the garden, the fields and the riverbank moved into winter. It's strange, you can hear it as you go out of your front door. There are new birds here, different songs, different flight patterns, movements where you don't expect them. First it was waxwings, moving in a free-flowing mob through the village, over the bridge into Riverside, calling and slinking through the branches. The robins were obviously intimidated, displaying and singing fit to bust on the tree-tops and the top of the telegraph pole. They are still here today, but more scattered, less obtrusive.
Then on Tuesday and this morning it was long-tailed tits. It's hard to see them; they are small and timid and neutrally coloured, but you can hear them all the time. They move about in bands too, and whistle to each other as they go. Whenever I hear them I think 'fairy pipers' and then feel rather ashamed -it's such a twee image. But there it is (and never was piping so sad/and never was piping so gay too much Yeats in my adolescence no doubt).

The trees are magnificent too, losing leaves daily but such rich colours. From my window I can see the last remaining orchard in the village - the orchards of Cambuskenneth Abbey used to be famous - and behind it is the visual equivalent of the Spector wall of sound - a row of yellow Lombardy poplars, and in front of them some tawny beeches and a golden birch. I wanted to photograph it , but I don't think I could convey the effect, and anyway it would involve the the foreground of other people's houses.

The river is full now because of the rain and the spring tides. Sometimes seals come up from the Firth on high tides, and I thought I might have seen one on Friday, just a glimpse of a sleek head and a bac curving below the water. But as I watched, whatever it was came up again and rolled. It was much smaller than I expected, and surely that was a tail and a paw? I think it may have been an otter, the first time I've ever seen one here. The it slipped away, and left the river to these swans.

Friday, 29 October 2010

where I'll be tomorrow

The Radical Book Fair, run by Wordpower Books at the Out of the Blue Drill hall in Edinburgh, is one of the most exciting of the year, and this looks like one of the most interesting events this year.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

biulding resilience

This year is a "mast year" when some trees - particularly oak and beech - suddenly produce massive amountsof seed. It doesn't mean there's going to be a hard winter, it's just a dodge some trees employ to make sure that every so often there's more seed than the local predators can cope with, and therefore more chance that some of it might germinate.

It's a form of resilience building which is a concept I got from learning about permaculture and which I'm quite interested in just now. The thing is, it's easy to be green when things are going well. Organic is worth the price, you have time to walk instead of driving, it's not cold enough to miss the central heating anyway and the garden is coming along quite nicely, so there's lots of lovely food to cook with ---- you know the score.

But what happens when things get ugly? You default to the car and the junk food, that's what. Or I do anyway.

So here's what I learned about resilience.

Start slow and get it right. I'm going against the drift of my whole personality here, as I'm a great one for the clean sheet and the big picture. But don't do that. Make small, well-thought out changes, and let them bed in. Habit and experience are your friends.

Make your life as easy and efficient as you can, within your green parameters. It's difficult enough going outside the mainstream; if you add elaborate schemes and gadgets to the mix you are asking for trouble.

Expect to fail. Build in fall-backs, like freezing meals in batches so good food is as quick and easy as a carry-out in a crisis. And think of what might go wrong. Can you still cook if the electricity is off? or the water? What happens if there's a flood (we won't get inundated in our village, as the water will flow onto the other bank of the river, because it's lower, but we might well be cut off) or heavy snow?

Don't see green options as an extra, or a choice, because if you do, it will become a burden and expendable. Stop thinking you are doing the world a favour.

Make it fun. Build in beauty and joy and peace. Do what you love.

This post was inspired by what happened around here when life got crazy, but there are many people out there who are busier and even more up against it. How do you build in resilience?

Monday, 25 October 2010

Africa in Motion - Poetry

On Saturday I went to the Poetry in Motion event at the Scottish Poetry Library which forms part of the Africa in Motion film festival. Five poets were there, mostly from Zimbabwe, but including Yinka Ekundayo from Nigeria, as well as Mara, a story-teller from Kenya who compered the event and contributed some thought-provoking stories between readings.

It would be easy to be side-tracked by some of the issues raised by these poets. 'Diaspora' turns out to be one of the main concerns of the poems in my forth-coming collection (it wasn't my intention, but that's what happened), and it was fascinating to see the take of the new generation on the themes of extended family, exile, ("When did soon become a decade?" to quote from Kennedy Madhombiro), and homesickness - "We sleep with eyes open/ we dream in tears" (Emmanuel Sairosi).

I can't help comparing Luka Bloom's Chicago
In the city of Chicago
As the evening shadows fall,
there are people dreaming
of the hills of Donegal.

which conveys nothing more than a rather faded nostalgia, compared with the writings of men who live their family lives on the phone or the internet, who remember the smell of roast mealie and long for the sun in a grey country "where colour is like sin" (Emmanuel Sairosi again).

But really I want to introduce the poets. They were excellent, especially Emannuel Sairosi, and Tawone Sithole who co-founded Seeds of Thought in Glasgow ("a non-funded urban poetry group, hosting regular poetry and acoustic music events in Glasgow, and beyond. Not your average kinda fluffy cloud poetry, its a fusion of beat / comedic / urban and Conscious poetry"). This pretty much describes his poetry, which was rhythmic, wittily rhymed, upbeat and confident. Seeds of Thought is a group I'm going to be following up.

Special thanks for this wonderful event should go to Stefanie van der Peer of Africa in Motion and Richie McCaffery, who organised it all.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The brilliant poet Nalini Paul is organising a weekend residential writing retreat on the island of Westray - which sounds like a fabulous combination to me! The cost is £250 all-inclusive, per person, covering accommodation, meals and workshops. See; and click on "What's on at the Manse" for more information.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Wittins Sheena Blackhall

This lovely book was launched at the Callander Poetry Weekend, one of the Die-Hard Metallic series. It is a collection of the recent poems of the terrifyingly prolific Sheena Blackhall - she produced a whole pamphlet of childrens' verse on a flight to Vietnam for a wedding - and includes poems in Doric and English, poems written in song and in ballad form as well as in less structured forms, poems about animals, landscape, language and poetry and a lot of poems about death. Death is the big topic this year and almost everyone at Callendar had at least one poem about it.

Sheena's poetry is both lively and thoughtful, profoundly reflective, lyrical and comic. And sometimes all in the one poem. She is hard to categorise - and would resent the effort to do it, as the witty New Cottage Industry points out. She us popular and accessible; her pamphlet The Win and the Rain which was written for the Tsunami appeal in Aberdeen, sold out completely. But there is nothing superficial or ephemeral about it. A poem from it, The Birth of Death is included in this collection, and still moves even after other catastrophes have pushed the Tsunami out of the headlines.

The picture below shows two of my favourite poems, but it also shows one of the features of the Metallic design - the 'trip to Jerusalem ' binding which allows the book to open flat. The publisher Ian King gave us a demonstration of this process, pointing out that it was cheap and easy, and if you can make your own books, no-one can stop you writing what you like. But I'm afraid the longer he talked, the more convinced I became that it is actually very difficult, highly skilled work requiring a more than the average amount of dexterity, dedication and good judgement, and will not be attempted by me any time soon.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Wherever We Live Now

Yesterday's post was, quite rightly, all about Sally and the other stellar poets at the Callander festival. However, I have some news of my own that I am just busting to tell.

My first collection, working title Wherever We Live Now, has been accepted by Red Squirrel Press and will come out about this time next year. Here you can see what I wrote about the wonder of nature (no, I hadn't submitted by then!)that is Sheila Wakefield. I can't tell you how thrilled I am to be working with her and joining the line-up of marvellous poets she publishes - Eleanor Livingstone, Nalini Paul, Colin Will, Kevin Cadwallender, Colin Donati, Andy Jackson ---

I could go on, but even after four days I'm too excited to concentrate. I'd forget someone wonderful and be mortified.

All I can say is, watch this space.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Callander Poetry Weekend

Englyn for Sally

In her cave of books, she guards the words,
Sorts trinkets from treasure.
There is fire in her belly,
And strength in her outspread wings.

I wrote this ages ago, when I first got to know Sally Evans, editor of Poetry Scotland and the Die-Hard Press, (which she runs with her husband, Ian King), and thought that, because of her name, she must be Welsh. She is, but not quite as much as I thought. Although of Welsh heritage, she was actually brought up in Northumbria.But this year she has been learning Welsh, and here she is, reading poems inspired by it.

Never was this englyn more appropriate than this weekend, when, as she does every year, she organises her Callander Poetry Weekend. Originally meant as an extended party for her Edinburgh friends who didn't drop in quite so much when she and Ian moved to callander, it retains the friendliness, the hospitality and the illusion that it's all easy and comes without effort. But it's also an open house for poets of all kinds and types and classifications of poets, to read and meet up and find out what's going on in poetry in Scotland - and further afield.

There are young poets, just getting started. There are older poets with years of successful publication behind them. There are mystical poets, political poets, love poets, green poets, lyrical poets, satirical and historical poets - some fabulous performance poets - and some really good musicians too. There are poets who write in Gaelic, in Doric or in the many dialects of Britain (and if you think dialect = comic you would be only half wrong as we had some excellent comic poetry written in dialect).

There were really good food, workshops (can't comment, mine was one of them!) two book launches, (Charlie Gracie's Good Morning, which I featured back in May and Sheena Blackhall's Wittins, which I'll write about later this month), and a tribute to Edwin Morgan, which everyone who was there found moving and appropriate for Scotland's well loved makar.

Now, as well as organising and programming the many events packed into the weekend, Sally also cooks the food for everyone (and doesn't charge), puts people up in her flat or in her garden, helps people find lifts home or places to stay, provides stalls for poets and other publishers to sell their books, and shares her lovely home and shop and garden with everyone who comes. It's a mammoth job. What's more, this year she did it, as she says, "with one hand tied behind my back", because of a broken wrist which was in plaster until last Monday.

Sally, we couldn't possibly tell you how much we loved this year's festival, or how grateful and appreciative we are for all you do for Scottish poetry. Thank you so much!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Callander Poetry Weekend

The programme for the hospitable and poetically diverse festival of them all, Sally Evans' Poetry in the Garden weekend,(3rd-5th September, Callander Bookshop, Main Street) is up on her website In spite of having broken a wrist, Sally has put together something very special; if you can get to it at all, I really recommend it.

Of course it doesn't hurt that I'm reading on the Friday night, and leading a workshop on the Scottish/Irish (and Welsh) poetry connection. But there are too many other excellent poets reading all through the weekend for me to single any out. Go look!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Poetry News

Things have been quiet here lately, while my life got busy elsewhere, but they should be stepping up a bit soon.

My poem Word to Sign:Translating Swallows appeared in Poetry Scotland earlier in the summer, Granary Cottage will be in the next Gutter and two poems, The Thaw and Slate Island Landscape will be in the issue of Brittle Star which comes out in November.

Meanwhile in September, Sally Evans will be holding the Poetry in the Garden weekend from the 3rd to the 5th, and I will be leading a workshop on the poetic connections between Scotland and Ireland. It's a subject I was very excited about, and I was even more excited when I found that the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre in Northern Ireland had led the way, so I found even more interesting leads to follow up.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Songs the Lightning Sang Geoff Cooper; Folklore Tim Atkins

Sometimes you read good poetry that is familiar, that reads like the sort of poem you would write yourself if you were good enough, the sort of poem you want to write when you grow up. And sometimes you come across good poetry of a sort you never even thought of, and that you wouldn't ever be able to write unless you rewired your brain, that astonishes you with newness and strangeness - and occasionally makes you ask yourself if what you write is poetry at all.

After today's lot, I began to see myself as a slightly manic four year old, jumping up and down with excitement shouting "Wow, look at that! It's so pretty!"

Poets of the first sort are easy to find if you like poetry at all. They include, for me, Kathleen Jamie, Gillian Clarke, Seamus Heaney and John Burnside, Eavan Boland (might as well aim high while you're at it!) Poets of the second sort are rarer, and more tricky. Recently I've been reading two such - Geoff Cooper whose Songs the Lightning Sang was brought out by Calderwood Press earlier this year and Tim Atkins, whose Folklore is published by Salt.

Geoff Cooper's poetry is unashamedly Romantic, obviously influenced by Coleridge, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Neruda, but achieving a voice of his own by tempering the lushness with accurate observation of the natural world and careful control of metre and structure. It is sensual poetry, inspired by landscapes, painting and music, passionate, as becomes a first collection, but also powerful and mature. It depicts a beautiful but fragile world where human behaviour is largely destructive or violent, God absent, nature indifferent. Yet the pervading sense of alienation and despair is not the final word.
I remembered
as a fool remember, that poetry must go beyond
the shining world ---
---brave and deep
inside others, and beyond ourselves.
must puzzle out
what's furthest, hardest,
yes poetry must seek out

All those other human worlds

Tim Atkins' poetry is not much like that at all. For him the distinction of the individual human worlds much less that between the natural and human world doesn't seem to exist. It's even hard to make out what the subjects of his fractured sentences are. The whole landscape,(Atkins is inspired by the Malvern Hills, the setting for The Vision of Piers Plowman) stones, people, flowers, stars, bones, birds, comes together to make one living breathing fertile mortal organism. You know what you are up against when he starts with
Man walks into sky .

It is physical, but not exclusively visual poetry, tactile, auditory, richly textured. Weird and beautiful.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

"Good morning" Charlie Gracie

I haven't had time for a proper look at this book, which I got at the Stirling Writers' Big Event last week, but you will be able to see one of Charlie's poems (my favourite, actually)Clyde valley Walkway, late April, with my Father here in July.
This month features Chris Powici, who was tutor of the Stirling Writers Group until recently, when he became editor of Northwords Now.

The point of the post, though, is to show you the first of the new Die-hard hard cover books. Sally and Ian King reckon that the only way to keep ahead of the e-book phenomenon is to make books gorgeous, and they have. The books have board covers, lovely cream paper, and will lie flat when you open them for ease of reading. Brilliant, no?

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

the process of poem

Two helpful comments from poets on the process of poem:
At a recent meeting of SCoP (the Stirling Centre of Poetry)Kathleen Jamie said, "The hardest thing to teach students is that you have to let the shit fall onto the page".
true, all too true. We have a tendency to censor what we are writing as we write it so a poem can be mummified before it is even born.

And I've just read this from W N Herbert's book "Writing Poetry";
"Most people --- don't read it (their draft) closely. What they see tends to be as much what they intended to write as much as what is actually on the page--Simply reading what you have actually written is by no means easy."

That is probably the most helpful thing I have ever read.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Creative Process

I've spent a lot of time lately looking at blogs of quilters, embroiderers, dyers, weavers and all sorts of other people who craft with fabric and thread. I used to embroider myself at one time (and knit, and make clothes, too for that matter) and at times I get the delusion that I still could, if I set my mind to it, if I wasn't so busy etc, etc.
In fact, last weekend, I succumbed to the temptation and made some cushions for the story chair in my study. (Why story chair? because they used to sit beside the children's beds so I could read them stories. There are two of them which were passed on from my great-grandmother). Here they are.

But it was enough to convince me I should stick to the poetry.
But here's the point. Looking at the crafters' blogs is more than an exercise in nostalgia and fantasy. It is inspiring on many different levels.
First of all, they are often very beautiful. Mousenotebook and Nature's Whispers come to mind here. Mousenotebook goes in for a very disciplined simplicity, neatness accuracy and restraint, whereas Natures' Whispers is all about the colour - rich, riotous and intense.
As well as inspiring me in the ordinary way - there's a poem about dyeing brewing in my notebook just now - thinking about the values they express in their different media helps me to think about the values I want for my poetry.
Some blogs do more than this. Spirit Cloth shows and discusses work in progress, and this is enormously interesting. Images and materials are assembled, laid out, put together, unravelled. Experiments are made with colour and form and stitching and texture. Ideas develop; understanding deepens. To me it feels a bit like watching a flower unfurl on film.

Poetry isn't often like that for me. I tend to come up with an idea like an untidy tangle of thread. If I pull at the right bit, a good image, an interesting line or two it unfolds into a poem and I look at it with a certain degree of astonishment, almost as if it didn't have anything to do with me. Then it's a matter of straightening it out a little, if it's disorderly, shining up the dull or tarnished bits, occasionally separating out the two poems that somehow got mixed up together. I quite like most of the results so far.

As I go on, however, and write more, I realise that this is not how the best poems come about. Good poetry is much more like good craftsmanship than good ideas. Taking time with your materials, engaging with the process, is as much part of the inspiration as the flash of insight.

And I have also found some poets who feel the same. I'll talk about them next time.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Red Squirrel poets

You can read Colin Will's take on the launch of his The Floorshow at the Mad Yak Café and Eleanor Livingstone's Even the Sea at Colin's blog.
I set one of my Orpheus poems at the Callander poetry festival, and it begins:
when Colin strikes the small Tibetan bowl.
The warmed and singing bronze awakes
a humming clarity

And so poetry started, with Colin's singing bowl.

It was indeed a great night, not only because the poetry books were good, but also because the readings were excellent - which doesn't always coincide. It was very well-attended - and yes, you two are indeed 'national treasures', justifiably well-known and well-loved, not only for your poetry, but for the help and encouragement you give to poetry in Scotland at large. You guys, and Sally Evans and Joy Hendry. Am I right?

I read the two books on the train going home (I know, but it was a long journey and a long wait before). Eleanor's poems are shorter, warm and witty, and deal with growing up, growing older, and the small intimate moments of relationships, but also have some beautiful clear snap-shots of nature and landscape. The poem that made most impact at the reading was It's my Party-- but the one I come back to, which I hope she won't mind me quoting is the introduction to part 2:

a Sunday in June
no bees in sight but listen
to the tree humming

Colin's poems are longer, less personal but deeply reflective. There are a lot about landscapes, Suilven and China, but the tone was set by some serious reflections about mortality and faith - or perhaps lack of it. It seems hard to strike the right tone in a society where we are pretty much in denial about death and a common belief or response is not a thing to take for granted, but these poems were calm, thoughtful and honest, deeply engaged, but not emotional. The only quarrel I have with this book is that it is too short!

You can get both of these books from Red Squirrel press.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

James Kirkup Memorial Competition

Here is the picture (copied from the Red Squirrel web-site) of the winners of the James Kirkup Memorial Competition last Friday. Sheila Wakefield, the publisher of Red Squirrel Press (who were organising the competition) is on my right, and you can just see the top of the head of Richie McCaffery, from Stirling Writers, behind me. I hope there are other photos which show him to better advantage!
The library where the event was held is a modern building beside a shopping centre - reminds me a bit of Dundee where the library is in the Wellgate Centre - in the Library Theatre. This was a lovely space, small enough to feel intimate, but with enough space for generous seating and good acoustics. It was a much less well-attended event than we might have expected, as eight of the runners up had been prevented from getting there by the ash cloud.
It meant, however, that as well as my own poem Rushlight, I got to read on behalf of one of the absentees Jellyfish by Julie Mellor - a stunning poem; I felt very lucky.
As well as catching up with Richie, I got to meet his parents, and to talk to the judges of the competition about how they had set about their job. This was a really nice experience, as you often find yourself sending poems to competitions and hearing nothing back, and sometimes you wonder if they hadn't just disappeared into a black hole somewhere, or got spiked and forgotten. But every poem in the competition had been read several times before the short-list was drawn up, and all the judges cross-marked their choices. They said they felt they had a 'duty of care' towards those who had sent them work. Far be it from me to suggest that all judges don't act the same way; I bet they do, and sometimes it's a lot of hard work for very little return, but all the same it's nice to hear that your work has been so carefully treated.
The anthology of winning poems is already available from Red Squirrel Press (£4)The winner was Lesley Mountain (she's at the front of the photo) with a poem called Timewasters, which you can read on the web-site,and Sheila, who must be the most hard-working and efficient publisher in the business, says that her pamphlet will be gong to press by Wednesday. Lesley read more of her poems in the second half, along with judges Terry Kelly and Alistair Robinson. A really good night.

South Shields is a very friendly place - I was struck by the courtesy of the drivers who stopped for pedestrians in a way I thought went out of style with pan stick and love beads, but also by the willingness to party which starts the weekend at four o'clock Friday ("So late?" asked the landlord of the B&B I was staying in.) St George's day celebrations seem to be a big thing, so by nine o'clock when the James Kirkup evening ended things were already lively, and I was frankly very grateful to Richie's parents for giving me a lift through the revellers!

Friday, 16 April 2010

John Burnside The Hunt in the Forest

I have had this book almost a month now, and though I read it the very same day I got it, here I am only just posting about it.

I am very fond of Burnside's poetry, ever since I read The Myth of the Twin. I was gob-smacked when I heard him read from Four Quartets which is the third section of Gift Songs and has all the complexities and layers and entrelacements of music, as well as the obvious influences of TS Eliot. So when I found myself in St Andrews for StAnza in a very crowded coffee-bar, and it looked as if the only place left was beside JB I decided I couldn't be that bold, and sneaked off into an obscure corner till I could stop myself doing the 'we're not worthy' bit.

This volume has even more echoes and influences of T S Eliot, but it's a lot easier to get your head round. It has a similar hypnotic evocative loveliness; the poems are full of rain and flowers, the sea, bats, snow, light and shadow. Burnside's world is inherently permeable, dust, pollen, feathers, snow, memories, shadows, ghosts, alternative possibilities slip through it, changing, hinting, fading. Haunting is the word for it.

And haunting it is, because this book is haunted by death. Deaths of friends and family; our own death, imagined, feared, longed for, or evaded; village deaths that become a matter of rumour and folk-lore; the death of animals and the guilt (or lack of it) that goes with it. Death hunts us in the forest of our lives, our dreams, and sometimes we hunt it, and sometimes we hunt each other.

It is an extraordinarily beautiful book, but it is also astonishingly creepy. On the other hand, there are three poems called Amor Vincit Omnia - rays of light in what would otherwise be a very dark place indeed.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

web-site updated

I have just finished refreshing the main web-site, so please take a look if you have time. Later this week I will be writing a bit more about St Andrews, and including a review of John Burnside's new book, which was so very hot off the press it was practically smoking.

Friday, 26 March 2010


Apart from the monumental reading by Seamus Heaney which I wrote about last time,the most interesting thing was a lecture by Grevel Lindop entitled Myth Magic and the Future of Poetry.. Grevel has since posted the full text, on his web-site
so I won't even try to summarise it, but it was excellent, well-written, well delivered, and a subject of passionate concern to most of his audience, which I liked, considering how much of a myth geek I am.

I am not sure, however, that we should, as he recommends, be using myths as a way of reconnecting with the earth. Tolkien also says that 'recovery' is one of the most basic functions of fantasy - if life has become dull and stodgy 'dipping it into story' is one way of making you appreciate the common things. And it is certainly true of The Lord of the Rings
. All those elves and monsters and magical rings, and what you really remember is the sound of a house door shutting in the early morning when the hobbits leave, or the taste of mushrooms at Farmer Maggot's, and the runner beans in Bombadil's wet and misty garden.

However, I am not sure that the process isn't better the other way round. We learn by moving from the known to the unknown. If we use myth to sacralise nature (and what a bloody awful word that is) will it not lead to a romantic and sentimental - and beyond that, a self-serving view of nature? If we don't value a salmon as a fish in a river, but as a repository for hidden wisdom, what will we understand about either fish or wisdom? Whereas if we learn about the salmon, observe it, and care for its habitat, we might learn something interesting and valuable about the world we live in, but we will be more fitted to understand the nature of all that wisdom it represents. And maybe a bit less uppity about the poet's role as shaman and go-between. Ain't nothing more spiritual about poetry than dishwashing if you ask me. Or less, for that matter.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010


I had only one day at StAnza this year - but even that's an improvement. In the past, although I knew it was coming up, it always took me by surprise until it was too late. This year, however, I had the Thursday, because it was Seamus Heaney day.

I did go to other things - I heard Jacob Polley and Anna Crowe read and I went to an excellent lecture by Grevel Lindop about myth, magic and the future of poetry, which will need another post to deal with it, but there is no doubt that it was definitely Seamus Heaney day.

The event was completely sold out, and so were the overflow events where the reading was broadcast to other rooms in the building. It was typical of Seamus Heaney's generosity that during the interval he went up to the other rooms to greet the people there too.

I saw him read once before at the Edinburgh Book Festival (I'd sat on the internet waiting for bookings to open that time too), just before his stroke. That was some performance - completely at home with his work and the audience and the questions, full of humour and generosity. The stroke has taken some of the strength and the confidence, but it hasn't otherwise diminished him in any way. He read a mixture of new poems, (there will be a new book out in September), personal favourites and requests. My daughters would have been pleased that he didn't do either The Death of a Naturalist or Digging both of which they still resent doing at school; in fact I think he must feel a certain reserve about Digging himself, because he read instead a poem where "a pen is a pen". (I know how he feels about that one. I do still read Walking on Water sometimes, but you know, life moves on--).

There seemed to be a lot about death in the set - his father's, his brother's, his mother's, and perhaps looking forward to his own, but there was also a sense of new inspiration, poems about wind and kites and healing that would lead you to think that perhaps post stroke, Seamus Heaney might be slightly less exuberant as a writer and reader, but more quietly and deeply reflective. I can't wait for the new book.

Friday, 12 March 2010


Poetry seems to have taken a back seat lately while I have been building the Lúcháir web-site and dealing with some complicated family shenanigans. But I have been reading more - Eavan Boland, Gillian Clarke, Kathleen Jamie, Christine de Luca, and getting into Macdiarmid. A bit of a theme going on here - land, language, memory. Beyond that, I have a new respect for theory and criticism, not only because I have come across some interesting and intelligent critics - Alan Riach, Meghan McAvoy, Michael Gardiner- but because I have found a sort of criticism that is not just dissection and analysis, but which links the writing and reading of poetry to the experience of living, and, instead of slowing you up, making you cynically aware of tricks and techniques to practice or inhibits creativity, sparks off new ideas, new connections, new poems.

All of this is very exciting, and usually the effect of being excited is that I buy lots of books, read lots of first chapters and finish up in an exhausted heap of poetry fragments that result in three poems five years later. Not so much this time - the theory is like a good conversation which keeps me focussed and grounded, and I now have two different but related projects taking shape.

One is the 'saracen' outlaw woman who has haunted me for at least the past ten years - the Polly Oliver,the girl who dresses as a boy in order to become a soldier, the selkie shape-shifting between human and seal, Baba Yaga a cannibalistic 'bad mother' or wise woman, depending on who you are, the Black Madonna (why does it matter to Spanish or Austrian communities that she is black?), Hestia (who is she and why does she matter so very much?)and the Sheila n-a gig a thoroughly irreverent fertility goddess,apparently. One of the 'saracen' poems "The Bower" will appear in Poetry Scotland shortly.

The other is 'hohokam' - the name of a native American city that was abandoned just before Europeans showed up. Apparently the name its survivors gave it means 'all used up'. I'm thinking a lot about erosion, fossils,decay, abandonment and survival/regeneration.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

New Poets

Remember back in November I said Nobody any good is allowed to bring out a book until the start of the next financial year!. Well, a lot of good that did me. Fortunately I've had a birthday, and people who know me know enough to give me book tokens, so in spite of Lynn Moir's pamphlet coming out, and the imminent arrival of pamphlets by Geoff Cooper, Judy Taylor and Juliet Wilson, I was able to conduct a raid a couple of weeks ago on Waterstones in Glasgow. It is my impression that they seem to be trying harder with the poetry these days, and I was hard pushed to keep within my budget (failed, actually, but then I knew I would).

Among the bunch was a pamphlet in the Faber New poets series by Fiona Benson. I met Fiona at Lumb Bank last year, and though there were several interesting 'emerging' poets there, Fiona struck me as being one who stood out for the concentrated power and physical texture of her work.

She has Scottish connections, as she completed the MLitt in Creative Writing and a PhD on Ophelia as a dramatic type at St Andrews university, where she edited The Red Wheelbarrow.

This is a small collection, only seventeen poems, but each one pulls its weight, giving the pamphlet more good poetry to the square inch than many larger works. Fiona Benson deals a lot with love, sex and death, memory and premonition, and the 'times between' times. Images of fertility, healing and decay are frequent - a bird skeleton, spawning fish, the Hungerford Bridge 'the simple stitch/heals the breach of the river', but also the outdoors, gardens, coasts and cliff-tops, references to light, sea and wind. I like the colours, the space and the 'bodilyness' of her work, but more than that, the ability to sidestep sentiment and self-indulgence by expressing powerful emotional experiences through her painterly creation of her settings.

Fiona Benson's first full collection, which she is currently working on, should be something to look forward to.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

A Poetry Conversation

Yesterday I went to Glasgow to hear Iain Anderson in conversation with Alan Riach and Norman Bissell about the poetry of Scotland.
This was a pretty good event even before it started because it gave me a chance to meet up with friends I met at the Atlantic Islands Festival on Luing last year, and there was some fantastic music by the Juniper trio, and poems by both speakers, but the conversation was also substantial, inspiring and thought-provoking.
It was nice to hear some very positive thoughts on the curriculum in Scottish schools - Scottish literature is alive and well and in safe hands if these educators are anything to go by, and there was a good deal of justified (in my opinion) optimism about the future generation of poets coming through. They drew attention to the riches of Scots and Gaelic available to writers in Scotland, and advocated that Gaelic should be in every primary school and nursery. Alan Riach made the sound suggestion that we should treat Gaelic as the New Zealanders treat Maori. Not everyone speaks it fluently, but everyone gets to experience the sounds and structures and concepts of the language as part of their personal and national identity.
Both speakers talked about the influence of place, landscape, communities, and language on poetry. They believe that the best art comes from the interaction between people and the world around them - "a heightened awareness of the things that are there that really matter, that you have to assent to" -such as landscape and weather, the facts of material life. This was given particular point by the fact that Alan Riach had recently broken an ankle falling on the ice, and he read a poem about it, referring to 'the mercilessness we walk in'.They talked about Hugh Macdiarmid and Norman McCaig, Sorley Maclean and George Mackay Brown, but also musicians like Margaret Bennett, who was also taking part in Celtic Connections, and painters like William McTaggart Joan Eardley and William Gillies who shared this readiness to be regenerated and inspired by the geography.
It seems characteristic of Scottish culture that there should be this cross-fertilisation between disciplines. As they said at the end,"Closed compartments are only good for sinking ships. What we want is dialogue!"

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Eavan Boland

O swan by swan my heart goes down
Through Dublin town, through Dublin town

from Liffeytown

I salvaged Eavan Boland's New Collected Poems from the wreck of Borders just before Christmas and started to read it last night.
heart breaking.
I don't know if I'm in love or in despair.
How could I ever write anything as good?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Kirsty Mordaunt

There's a new link at the side to the site of a very promising young illustrator. She is a friend of Nomi at terragrith, who designed my web-site for me, and I first became aware of her work when she did a design for Eurydice Rising. Now she is working on a series of illustrations of the fairy-tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon , and as I'm working my way into the lesser-known girl-figures in fairy-tales and ballads, this is right on my target.
there's some beautiful work there - go look!