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.