Friday, 30 March 2012

Happenstance Poets at Stanza

One of the highlights of this year's StAnza was the Happenstance showcase, launching the pamphlets of three young poets. Richie McCaffery has been on my poets-to-watch list for several years since we were both at Stirling Writers, but this year Theresa Munoz and Niall Campbell joined him when I heard them read in Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively.

Close by Theresa Munoz
Theresa Munoz is a Canadian settled in Scotland and currently writing a doctoral thesis on Tom Leonard. Her poems are graceful and elegant, dealing with relationships, exile and estrangement, and with a keen eye for the oddities of the Scottish response to foreigners. My especial favourites are Settlement which deals with the bureaucratic insensitivities of the immigration system, and the title poem, about watching rain:
brief wet textures
fall diagonally
the air

It has the contrast between indoors and outdoors, the urban environment, rain and the sense of at-homeness with a loved one packed into only nine short lines. I find Theresa Munoz' use of
very short
hard to read and follow - a disjointed and sometimes indigestible experience, a bit like eating popcorn, but in this poem they are just right.

Spinning Plates by Richie McCaffery
This collection is like a museum of curiosities for words - cilices, paregoric, tesserae, expungible - all set out carefully to display their unique and unexpected colours and gleams and tastes in the mouth as you read them. Don't let all this distract you, however, from the wide range and the intensity of the poems themselves, which deal with death, family relaationships, local history, and the significance of discarded objects.
There are some vivid and astonishing images 'bullets hitting the water/ like kingfishers' a tea-spoon 'a tiny school bell of steel/on china'.
It sounds grudging to say this pamphlet shows promise, because it's already really good, but I can't help feeling that there is more to come, that Richie McCaffery is still only trying out his wings. Watch this space.

After the Creel Fleet by Niall Campbell
Niall Campbell, on the other hand, is fully fledged and soaring away. There are some fine strong lyrical poems in this collection, dealing with his birth-place on South Uist, his marriage,the passing of time and his recent stay in France on a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship. This very visual poetry is full of colours and conrasts, thirst and water, flood and drought, light and dark, silence and comprehension, love and death.
seeing with one eye the sack-
grain spilled on the roadway dirt,
and with the other, the scattered stars.
their chance positioning in the dark.

These pamphlets are carefull and beautifully produced with cream pages and covers, and lining inserts in rich and distinctively coloured paper. They do due credit to three very high quality collections.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

This Week in the Territory of Rain - Equinox

Winter is over and summer is come
and the sound of the lawn-mower is heard in the land.

I caught a glimpse of a blackbird hen trying to get about three feet of grass stem into the hedge this week. I am fairly certain there is a dunnock nesting there, as well as a colony of sparrows, and a robin is using the birch and the rowan as song-posts, so the nesting season is under way.

Plants in the woodland garden are bulking up nicely, and the first honesty is in bloom. Flowers are a big deal just now, as the bumblebees have been emerging from hibernation. The crucuses were all early, but the daffodils are late, or coming up blind, so I will have to think of some more early flowers to increase the pollen supplies.

The garden has been quite noisy, as, along with the birds and the bees, the frogs have been at it too. There's quite a lot of frogspawn this year, so I hope there will be no sharp frosts.

The last two days have been grey, fairly cool, and misty. As we came home from our daughter last night the mist was condensing on the tree branches and dripping like rain. Shrubs like honeysuckle, tutsan and fruit bushes are in their first leaf, and the early trees are just at bud burst.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


On Sunday we were at the Dungavel Solidarity Gathering for Mothers' Day. It was cold. It is always cold there. There were more protesters than policemen this time, including two MSPs from the Scottish Nationalist Party. They can't close it down, much as they'd like to; they can't even get answers to their questions, because the whole thing is reserved to Westminster, and Westminster won't say anything.

So here I am, reading Visit Scotland outside the gate. I read Theresa Munoz's poem Settlement as well. This poem describes the process of getting permanent residency status, and though Theresa was successful, it completely evokes the soulless process of exposing your lives to strangers who will pronounce judgement on whether you can stay or not.

I guess we will be back again on the nearest Sunday to St Andrew's day, and next time I promise to have learned the words to Hamish Henderson's Freedom Comeallye so the Eurydice Choir don't have to do it all on their own.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Poetry and Fish Suppers

Poetry festivals and fish suppers go together in my mind. At Callander there is the wonderful Oran Mhor, and at StAnza there is the Tail End, where the queue winds around the shop and out the door, and the chips are crisp and the fish white and pearlescent inside its perfectly cooked batter. Stalking about St Andrews eating a fish supper, even in the dark and the rain, is the perfect way to get your breath back between events and checking out the bookshops.

I looked in both Waterstones and Innes Books on Friday, noting the inviting heaps of books by all the poets taking part in the Festival, sampling and choosing a short-list to buy on Saturday morning. Imagine my horror, to return and find great gaps in the display, and, with two days to go, half the books on my short list sold out! Actually I am secretly delighted about this. If poetry is selling out at festivals there can't be too much wrong with the world! I did buy Rachel Boast's Sidereal and the last copy of Kerry Hardies Selected Poems - what a discovery that turned out to be! - and hit up the Poet's Market for the Red Squirrel Split Screen anthology and the new Happenstance pamphlets. These will have to have a post to themselves later in the week, otherwise they will get lost in the shuffle.

I went to seven events in the end, having booked five in advance, and adding two Border Crossings when I knew I would have the time to get to them. Highlights were Jane McKie's reading, the Filmpoem event and Matt Hollis' talk on Edward Thomas. Having been severely disappointed by a talk at Aye Write on George Mackay Brown, I can only say that Matt Hollis showed how to do do it - the background to the book, the argument of the book, the process of writing it, the personalities of the poets, and above all, the poetry, all got their due, and both interviewer and subject seemed at ease and engaged with the subject and the audience. But really, there wasn't a duff note in the two days I was there.

Of course the scheduled events are only part of the StAnza experience. Poetry is a small town, and the festivals are our passagiata, so there was much meeting up with friends and making new ones, catching up with the news, comparing books purchased and poets heard, sharing old passions and new ideas. There was poetry in film and on stone, poems in response to photographs, and even poems on biscuits (delicious!). There was the Murmur Line, sound poems which spoke out of bushes as you passed, and poems to welcome you as you arrived at the bus station or the train station at Leuchars.

There was the Byre Theatre, a beautifully designed building, full of graceful curves and corners where you can set up a base camp and see who comes in to chat. You could tell how successful everything was, because of how much of a hammering the facilities were getting, and yet neither the toilets or the bar seemed to wilt under the strain.

This year, however, I have been mostly impressed by the organisation behind the whole enterprise. Everything went smoothly, calmly, and in a friendly and comfortable manner. Mistakes were ironed out within minutes and without fuss, and there seemed to be an army of cheerful and knowledgeable helpers whenever you might want them. And this, I think, must be down to the meticulous and indefatigable Eleanor Livingstone, who didn't seem to stand still for the whole festival, but never looked flustered or out of temper. She is the still point at the heart of Stanza, and of course

Except for the point, the still point
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Thank you to Eleanor and to everyone who made this StAnza such a joy.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Thirsty Gap - for Climate Change Week

This time last year, I posted about an article I'd read in the New Civil Engineer (no kidding, I'm married to a civil engineer, and it was lying about), saying that 60% of all cities in Western Europe were using up groundwater faster than it was being replaced. This year we have hosepipe bans in England already, and the gloom and doom prophecies have started. Not that it applies to Scotland - oh, no, we have had the rain only slightly less than usual, and, as usual, we are more worried about flooding than drought. But.

I have been reading The Olive Tree by Carol Drinkwater. It was a bit of a drudge, frankly, but an eye-opener. A series of idyllic life in Provence has turned into a discussion of the whole olive industry, taking in war and peace, organic gardening, corruption and bureaucracy in the farming industry, and, most telling of all, a description of how intensive farming, paticularly in polytunnels, is degrading the landscapes in some of the hottest, driest and most vulnerable landscapes in Europe.

Oh, internet, I do love you very much, but one thing I have noticed since we all went on line is a remarkable rise in the 'four legs good, two legs bad' style of thinking. Let us not go there. If you do it thoughtfully, and reclaim waste water and energy to service your tunnel, polytunnels can be a brilliant and sustainable way to grow food. Indeed, in Iceland (where they heat the greenhouses with geothermal energy) and the Scottish Islands (where you are always fighting the wind), it's probably the only serious way to grow many crops at all. No, polytunnels are not evil. But.

If you buy intensively raised fruit and vegetables from hot countries where safe clean water is a problem, you are not helping to grow their economies, you are trashing their longterm survival. You are importing their water, drying out and impoverishing their landscape, encouraging soil erosion, and creating long-term dependency on cash crops and vulnerability to exploitation by international markets.

This is hard to take on board. I already try to eat seasonal and local wherever possible, but in Scotland in March it leaves you with the end of the apples and pears, and just a pink glimmer of rhubarb - maybe in the next three weeks? The leeks are coming to an end, and my family won't eat cabbage. From the beginning of March to the middle of May at least, we are in what used to be called the hungry gap, and it is going to be bleak. This year I may compromise. But next year, I plan to be ready. I'm going to harvest, freeze, preserve and store as much local food as I can to get us through. And I'm going to find out as much as I can about growing conditions in those countries we import from - Kenya, Chile, South Africa, Honduras - and try to concentrate on places with sustainable growing methods.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Garden in March

I have borrowed a camera from my daughterjust in time to show you how the garden is behaving. The herbs are always quickest to start - someone said they have the souls of weeds, which give them incredible vigour and hardiness (translated, means they get out of hand very easily!), and the thyme which you can see here is bulking up nicely.

In the woodland garden - i.e., under the birch tree - the primroses are out, the violets are throwing up a lot of freshh green leaf, but no flowers as yet, ferns and aquilegias are coming through well, there are two erythroniums coming up this year, and the hellebores and pulmonarias look fabulous.


In between preparing for StAnza, I have been re-potting all my container plants, and pricking out seedling geraniums. Planting potatoes and sowing the first peas and salads will come next week, when I hope the first daffodils will be through. And the curlews appear to have set up home on the river bank, so working in the garden should be very special for a month or two!

Monday, 12 March 2012

Out and About

This photo was taken at the all women poetry slam at the Banshee Labyrinth in Edinburgh last week. The event was organised by Claire Askew, (who also compered, and did a fantastic job), and was tremendous fun, although I didn't make it past the first round. I met up with old friends, made some new ones, and heard some very fine poetry. In the event, the slam was deservedly won by the witty and outspoken Rachel McCrum.

Life got a bit complicated after that. I had a day in bed ill, then went to Liverpool to visit my mother and seister and her family, then came home and went to Glasgow where all our children had gathered, and to the Sudden Fame event organised by the Federation of Writers (Scotland), at the Aye Write Festival in the Mitchell Library. This is a fabulous building with lots of rooms for events as well as good stocks of books, and the Herald Cafe. The event was smaller than last year, but if anything, the quality of the readings was higher, and I was thrilled to find out how Glasgow really identifies with Visit Scotland. So I plugged the upcoming Solidarity Gathering.

It will take place on Sunday, outside Dungavel, at one o'clock. For further information, please contact the secretary of Ayrshire Friends of Refugees at It isn't usually a long event - maybe half an hour or so. We sing, or recite poems or read out relevant bits of news, and present small gifts - biscuits or sweets or similar.

Monday, 5 March 2012

All my Christmases (2)

At StAnza this year Alastair Cook is putting on Filmpoem, which will include all the pieces which made Where the Land Lies such a memorable event, (mine too), but also new ones, including Better Days by Kevin Cadwallender, which is not only a particularly happy marriage of film and poetry reading, but also a damn' good poem. It sums up a lot of my feeling towards the recidivist domesticity you see in magazines these days!

And then, on Saturday, I heard that my poem Sea-Henge has made the final selection for In Stereoscope, and you'll be able to see it in the Byre Theatre during the Festival.

One of my cherished ambitions has been to be involved in StAnza, and now I will be - twice!

I would never be done thanking all the people who have made this such an exciting week. I hope you know who you are. I hope every aspiring creative person gets such help and kindness as I've had.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

All my Christmases at Once

There was a strange text conversation at lunch yesterday, as one of her friends texted my daughter asking "Was your mother born in Liverpool?"
"Then I've just seen a review of her book in the Scottish Review of Books."

There was much excitement and I ran out and bought the Herald to check it out. It was true. Theresa Munoz - no mean poet in her own right, btw, her launch at StAnza is going to be a noteworthy event - had a column dealing with new poetry, and there we were, eight of us, Marion McCready, Graham Fulton, Gerry Cambridge, Peter Gilmour, Anne Connolly, Tom Bryan and Rody Gorman - and me. It was tremendously exciting - it's lovely to get feedback, and to hear what people like and why they like it, and it's always intriguing to see if what they think you did matches with what you think. I'm in very classy company, as you can see - Marion and Anne are poets I admire tremendously, and good friends. And it never hurts to read phrases like 'her sensitive ear' and 'imaginative and ironic'. You can read the full review here.

This wasn't all. The Stirling Observer included a review too, written by Sally Evans - a great poet and a good friend, who, in her capacity as Editor of Poetry Scotland, gave me my first start in poetry (I should think half the poets in Scotland could say the same). You can read it here. It's a masterly summing up of everything that's in it, though India (of India's Alchemy) is not so much mythological as the real life India Flint whose blog (Not All Who Wander Are Lost) is on the sidebar. Her work, however, has mythological status in my head!

There's one thing I really like about these reviews. When you put together a book, you put in the poems you think are good, and the poems other people tell you are good, and then you put in a couple just because you want to. @Visit Scotland@ is one of those and it really thrills me that both reviewers picked it up. I feel very passionately about the way we treat asylums seekers. I'm hoping the usual mother's day protest outside Dungavel will happen this year, and I'd encourage everyone who can to attend it (I'll confirm date and time when I know them.) So I'll add the poem here

Visit Scotland

Dungavel makes a grim landlady,
corseted with steel, her flinty face
edged with fat curlers of barbed wire.
She keeps her eyes shut when we come,
plants police like knuckles at her hips,
more of them, this time, than us.
You asked so little when you came –
an ordinary life, work, shopping, school,
a joke with the neighbours, uninterrupted sleep –
Scotland could not manage even that.
I bring you shortbread, and caramel wafers
wrapped in tartan cellophane.

There is even more good news, but this post is long enough. I'll tell you the rest later. But for now, I'll just say I feel like all my Christmases came at once