Monday, 19 December 2011

Voices ringing through snow

The Feral Choir performing 'Forgotten Carols'
'Snow is sometimes a she, a soft one.
Her kiss on your cheek, her finger on your sleeve
In early December, on a warm evening,
And you turn to meet her, saying "It's snowing!"
But it is not. And nobody's there.
Empty and calm is the air.'

(Ted Hughes, from 'Snow and Snow')

We drove through snow to get there.  The woods were draped white in the headlights and the car, laden with our three generations, slithered rather on the bends above Balmaclellan.  At The CatStrand the theatre was packed with people hastily stripping off many outer layers while they compared notes about dodgy road conditions.

But in moments we were immersed in an evening of warm, intoxicating song and reading. The richness of mixed voices, expertly trained and conducted by Ali Burns, the sense of time past and re-evoked, was just wonderful.  Wendy Stewart's harp was marvellous with the voice of the singer Richard Trethewey, whose sense of rhythm was also completely engrossing - I loved the version of the ancient 'Come and I will Sing You' - incantatory, deeply strange, puckish.  The Boar's Head Carol, first published in the 1520s, but known to be older still, raised the little hairs on the back of my neck. 

Tom Pow made the readings resonate with their own strength, never overplaying where the words do it all, as in Charles Causley's 'Innocents Song', which ends:

'Watch where he comes walking
Out of the Christmas flame,
Dancing, double-talking:

Herod is his name.'

- but Tom's telling of a royal icing incident taken from 'Let Me Eat Cake: A Life Lived Sweetly' by Paul Arnott, actually disturbed the admirable poise and discipline of the choir members.  The audience had given up completely and when the aforesaid icing defeated male pride armed with a sterilised woodsaw, we simply collapsed in giggles.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

How living in forests makes your stories refer to conversational, bonneted wolves...

"Totally speculative and extremely ill-founded", said Sarah Maitland, smiling broadly as she contemplated her about-to-be-published work 'Gossip from the Forest'.  "And overwritten", she added. 

Well, I doubt it.

We were listening to the famed author in a lecture theatre on the Crichton Campus, part of Dave Borthwick's excellent series of visiting writers talking about how their work is related to the natural world.  (Good for you Dave, Dumfries & Galloway is suffering a dearth of other lit programming until various powers get their act together again).

Sarah's new book will explore, she says, the impact of landscape on the imagination.  Specifically, it explores 12 walks through forests (yes, that's one for every month) and en route the relationships between such places, their natural science, their atmospheres, sounds, particularities etc - and north European fairy stories. 

She talked about Staverton Forest in Suffolk, with its 4000 ancient pollarded oaks, and expounded on the 'casual' nature of magic in story.  That is to say, it's usually wholly  unearned (by the feckless younger son, or undeserving bossy sister) and doesn't require study for even an OWL at Hogwarts. 

An hour flew by.  Tom Pow contributed the happy thought that fairy stories are there to explain to us that 'shit happens'.  Sarah leapt on this and in seconds they'd constructed the ground-breaking concept of 'Luck and Shit', to encompass all human eventuality.

'Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physics are petty wits;
Divinity is basest of the three, Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vile,
Tis magic, magic that has ravish'd me'
said Sarah, quoting Kit Marlowe.  

Luck, shit and magic.  I think that covers it, really. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

In Wales in the company of The King of Britain's Daughter

I walked uphill on a muddy green track which might not quite take a small car.  Then it narrowed and became barely suitable for a pony.  I could just see roof timbers higher up.  It was very steep, and there was no sound but the sea, far below.  The green track led to a cottage which someone had begun to renovate.  But not recently.  It was unmistakably a little bereft, a little sad.  Beautiful slabs of stone fenced its tiny garden, and a mighty granite post marked the gate.  I put my hand on a delicate roughness of lichen so white it looked like a splash of paint, and stepped up, but with the odd feeling always present when you know your touch and step is the physical echo of so many others. 

I sat down on a big stone under the empty window of the cottage, looked out to sea and fished a book out of my pocket.  Just out of the wind, and for ten minutes, I enjoyed the company of Gillian Clark. 

Seal's head in water,
Bran's footprint in a slab of rock
Deep enough for a child to swim.
An ess of light as far as Ireland.
Salt in my mouth and the wind to lean on.

Later we climbed Yr Eifl's curving peak and looked down onto the Iron Age ruins of Tre'r Ceiri.

Beached for good on the high-tide line,
the houseboat leaned to sea,
at odds with the level earth
in its ballast of stones
and fishy drifts of sand.

Cargo of cuttlefish,
bladderwrack, blue mussels
the horn of a unicorn,
the skull of a curlew
and maps for the journey,

the King of Britain's daughter
making for open sea
past headlands like drinking dragons,
marked by that neolithic stone
from the giant's pocket.

All week we had stones, sea foam and radio.  We had slate caverns where they played ghostly recordings of Blaenau's male voice choirs, and bookshops in Caernarfon and Porthmadog where readers talked books with the bookseller and no-one had a loyalty card.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Commonty: Fankle Issue 7 Rolls out..

I do like The Fankle!  Cunningly folded, deftly worded, The Fankle is rumbling into autumn with the Barrel issue.  Click here for a snifter The Commonty: Fankle Issue 7 Rolls out..

Monday, 10 October 2011

National Poetry Day 2011

Just back in the land of internet after my week on the wild side at Cove Park, and find I was a Contemporary Scottish Poet for 2011 National Poetry Day.

Must try to continue to be.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

A wet week at Cove Park (but wet is good)

My grant from Arts Trust Scotland came through in the nick of time for me to take up my Fielding Mentored Week with Polly Clark.  This takes place at Cove Park in Argyll, a place that feels like the back of beyond and yet is strangely near to Glasgow...

I'm staying in a Cube, a charmingly converted industrial container.  It has retained a faint starkness, which is very suitable to the purpose of being isolated with your poetry project for one precious week.  Any asceticism is comfortingly eased however by high insulation, comfortable bed and delightful desk and sofa over the Big View. 

I'm working on The Dark Farms, which is all about The Galloway Forest.  It's about signs of change and time, both human and cosmological, passing, in a place where very dark skies survive, but farms are falling in, where the forests have swallowed up ancient paths, where there are even ghosts of sheep.

The Hunt  (an extract)
It’s intricate, this sheep ree, links and passageways
to fox them.  The sheep running like water

down the bitter face of Mulwhachar to pour
between the rock walls of the Buchan Burn. 

The smell of lanolin and panic, the Blackface
tricked by grinning dogs, who leave

no choices and no dodging back. And the dykes,
raddled with shearing dags and blood...

Polly's mentoring sessions were great.  Words like incisive and rigour do come to mind, but in a good way.  The poems are sharper, more honed, and more effective as a result.  I've learned a lot.  I've also put in a huge amount of time, even surprising myself somewhat at my dedication to task.  Usually I just don't have it, period.  Also, the rain.  It has rained some of every day, and all but one virtually constantly.  I get up now and then, regardless, and walk through water, greeting charming Highland cows, or up and down the steep road to the shore.  There are other artists here, a sculptor, a novelist, a film photographer, a biographer and now a performance artist too.  All great company.  My last night tonight, I'm planning to be back.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Dark Farms - this time I really found one

I've been back to the Galloway Forest, exploring for places bearing signs of change.  This is the farm at Glenhead.  In 1901 S R Crockett described his arrival there with a fellow traveller.
'Placid stillness without as we ride up - a broad straw hat lying in a friendly way upon the path - the clamour of children's voices somewhere down by the meadow - this is Glenhead, a pleasant place for the wandering vagabond to set his foot upon and rest awhile.' 
Crockett goes on to describe the coolness of 'the narrow latticed sitting-room - where there is such a collection of good books as makes us think of the winter nights when storms rage about the hill-cinctured farm...'  Later they follow 'the slow, calm, steady shepherd's stride of our friend, as he paces upwards to guide us over his beloved hills.'

In 2011, as you can see from the photograph, Glenhead is empty.  Unusually, in fact, it's actually bricked up.  I walked along the overgrown track where once Crockett noticed the fallen straw hat, and I leaned on an orchard gate and stretched out my hand for a small but sweet apple.  The yew tree pins together these two times, as do the heavy erratics which form the bank around it beside the track.  Working my way through bracken and brambles to the house, I could only sense loss, and  disturbance.  There's something uncanny about a house shut up.  I thought about the sitting room and its shelf of good books, a space enclosed in permanent darkness now. 

You can still hear the burns running.  Damselflies flitted like sparks through the reedy grass.  I was glad to leave.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Workshop with Donald Adamson at The Bakehouse

I'm more than happy to suggest folk might like to go along to this workshop from Donald Adamson.  It's at the lovely Bakehouse in Gatehouse of Fleet on Sunday 25 September.  It promises to be a really interesting and fresh look at the art of poetry in translation. 
I'm going to feed it into my weekend round Wigtown Book Festival and Doors Open Days, on the principle (just invented) that good things come in threes.

Workshop: What makes a good translation?
Facilitated by Donald Adamson
The Bakehouse, 44 High Street, Gatehouse of Fleet DG7 2HP

Sunday September 25th 10.30am  – 1.30pm
Followed by a light lunch and discussion.
Cost £8.00

This workshop is for everyone – poet or otherwise – with an interest in poetry in translation. You are invited to bring translated poems that you have enjoyed and say why they appeal to you. (It will be helpful if you have some copies to pass round.) What do they ‘preserve’ of the original? What has been the translator’s strategy?
If time allows we’ll look at some translations from 20th century poets (Rilke, Vallejo) and from earlier periods (Ronsard, Horace, Catullus), with translations by Robert Bly, Ezra Pound, Yeats, etc.

Donald is a poet and translator, who taught Creative Writing and Translation Studies in Finnish Universities until his recent retirement. A rare opportunity lively discussion with an expert in his field.

Reviews of some of Donald’s translations:
‘This record should come with a "parental advisory" sticker, for the venom - musically and lyrically - scarcely lets up throughout. Folk music as cultural terrorism, anyone? (Times Review of  Värttinä album)

‘...the sound is decidedly dark...The lyrics (don’t miss reading the translations – they’re freaky!) are also pitch black, (“my loathing drips blood, my pain slashes, curses, drenches with pus”) ... like toe-tapping dirges sung by the ship’s band on the boat to hell...’  Stanford University Review of Värttinä album)

Another opportunity for writers and Writer’s across the Region to meet and engage with each other in the warm and supportive atmosphere of the Bakehouse

BOOKING: Tel 01557 814175 or or

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Getting acquainted with Being Human

'Being Human', the new anthology from Bloodaxe, has been brightening my life for the last three months.  Witness the fact that when I want it, I have to track it down, because it wanders from room to room. Sometimes it's been read in a saggy chair in the conservatory in the chilly early morning; or it's tucked under the chair by the Rayburn after a wet summer evening.  Or in the capacious basket we keep in the loo.  Or lying doggo on a windowsill, waiting to go out to the garden with a cup of coffee.

What a book!  Wander into it and it will enrich your life.  Here's some favourites.

'Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)'

Louis MacNeice's beautiful exploration of the slowness and strangeness of time when you're waiting for someone.

Then there's Ruth Stone's 'Second Hand Coat'.

'I think when I wake in the morning
I have turned into her.
She hangs in the hall downstairs,
a shadow with pulled threads.
I slip her over my arms, skin of a matron.'

Think about it, next time in Oxfam!

Try Thomas A Clarke, 'In Praise of Walking'.  A long poem, like his walk, full of steadiness and meditative rhythm. 
'Walking is not so much romantic as reasonable.
The line of a walk is articulate in itself, a kind of statement.
Pools, walls, solitary trees, are natural halting places'.

For an evocation of haunting, Fleur Adcock's 'Water':

'I met an ancestor in the lane.
She couldn't stop, she was carrying water.
It slopped and bounced from the stoup against her;
the side of her skirt was dark with the stain,
oozing chillingly down to her shoe.
I stepped aside as she trudged past me,
frowning with effort, shivering slightly
(an icy drop splashed my foot too).'

Simple, and absolutely believable.

I've no way read enough yet.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

New poetry written with midges and OS Explorer 318

Out west in the Galloway Forest Park are the mountains of Benyellary, Bennan, Craig Neldricken, Craignaw, Mullwharchar and the big daddy of them all, The Merrick.  Scattered among and below the hills are the farms, in an arc north of Newton Stewart.  This is the area of the recently designated Galloway Dark Skies Park, a recognition given to only a few places in the world whose natural darkness is almost entirely unpolluted by human sources of light.

Since May I've been working with OS 318 and 319 close at hand, on a new poetry project, working title 'The Dark Farms'.  It's developing into a themed collection of poems focused on the landscapes and extraordinarily dark skies of the Galloway Forest Park.  It's about places, on the human scale of cottages or sheep pens (they're sheep rees in Galloway).  But I also wanted to consider 
the immensity and complexity of space-time, as visible in the dark skies that are still part of this area.

I've been reading astronomy and discovering extraordinary things about the cosmos that I was ignorant of.  I'm still pretty ignorant, due to the marked lack of a science education, but I'm staggered by facts like -
a black dwarf is surrounded by a sort of faint light, which is a 'memory' imprinted on the fabric of time and space, of the blazing star it once was.  Or telescopes move in altitude and azimuth.  Or that dying stars spin out electrically charged winds.  That wind makes no sound in space.

(My teenager heard me exclaim about the last one and looked at me pityingly.  "Well of course it can't" he said, "no sound in a vacuum".  Ah).

I've been walking alongside huge striped dragonflies in places where there are no longer even sheep tracks (just bog) and whenever I stopped to write something down, the midges caught me up.  Stood on foundation stones of cottages long gone, their hearthstones gathering rainwater.  Met a huge red bull all too like a comet, while I was looking for a place called The Castle of Old Risk. 

Working with me on this project is artist William Spurway, who I persuaded because of my great admiration for his draughtsmanship.  Also, since his work is about light, he's interested in dark too.  Here's one of William's bull drawings, and part of one of my poems in progress.

and now             they’re emptied
the dark farms
now crouched        in their earths 
for years               
they swallowed      glints               
and flakes          of stars

Monday, 25 July 2011

Shropshire Butterflies - a book from Fair Acre Press, edited by Nadia Kingsley

Ringlet, Linda Nevill
New from Fair Acre Press is the extremely lovely hardback anthology ‘Shropshire Butterflies’.  It does do what it says on the tin, providing keenly poetic and sometimes scientifically observant glimpses of each one of the 39 species of butterflies wise enough to take up residence in Shropshire.  This book celebrates them richly in poetry and original artwork.

I must declare an interest at this point, as by a series of happy coincidences last year I met Nadia, and had the chance to join a frolicsome band of poets, cautiously shepherded by a very nice ranger, on a butterfly walk near Ironbridge.   On a soft summer morning we hovered beside bushes, waiting for a shaft of sunlight that would fetch our delicate quarry out to bask.  Then we made amateurish swipes at them with butterfly nets, slowly learning the neat wrist flick that turns the net to stop your butterfly simply fluttering free.  My first catch was a slightly shabby Comma, and able to see it so close up  I was entranced by its warm markings, and the tattered edge of its wings – this specimen had come through winter.  Later we stood under a row of old oaks and the ranger really did tell me that he’d seen Purple Hairstreaks flutter down to drink the dew on the woodland ride.

Grey Pilgrim, Ellen McBride

Nadia’s book is illustrated with a beautifully reproduced array of artist-created prints, drawings and sculptures which explore the vivid forms and lives of butterflies.  The book is arranged in the sequence of the butterfly year, so the 39 species appear in the order in which you’re most likely to encounter them.  Slightly unusually for an anthology, ‘Shropshire Butterflies’ is presented without any poets’ or artists’ names beside their work.  In the end I rather liked this, as I kept one finger in the back of the book for its comprehensive index and biogs, and so zig-zagged back and through, discovering many delightful things to alight upon.  (If you want to read one of my poems for this book, click here).
Brimstone, Barbara Gunter-Jones

There are wonderful poems in here by much published and award-winning poets of the calibre of Mario Petrucci, Roger Garfitt, Mavis Gulliver, Alwyn Marriage and Gillian Clarke, but there are also wonderful poems by poets I discovered for the first time.  I particularly like Marilyn Gunn’s work – here are the first lines of ‘Small Copper’:
Spark offerer,
you scatter cinders on rudbeckia suns,
those beckoning planets where the border
leans, bees in its flames.

and this, from ‘Presences’ by Rita Carter:
Level with the Long Mynd
white clouds brush the dark barrow
tent-cloud to war -

Twisting in the fosse, pellets of bone hollow under moss
as tawny Gatekeepers patrol each hedgerow
Butterfly Library, Francis Carlile
Carol Ann Duffy says on the back cover: ‘This is one of the most delightful ‘green’ poetry projects I have heard of in recent years.’ 
A  book for all your butterfly seasons, to flit through again and again.  You can buy it online from  and from various outlets in Shropshire, all detailed on the website.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

How simple things are complex really

I was entranced this month by Vija Celmins’ work on show in Gracefield Arts Centre.  Small greyish frames of sketchy dark, lit by stars and cobwebs, mostly.  It’s part of the Artist Rooms On Tour exhibition that is showing around Britain this summer, and I think it’s great that Gracefield has succeeded in bringing it to Dumfries. 
I walked slowly round the exhibition, trying to tune in to what the artist was doing.  There is much repetition of subject.  Or a sense of someone trying afresh, afresh, to catch something there.  It feels quite meditative, all that near-focus on cobwebs.  They are extraordinarily beautiful and have the imperfections of a torn thread caused by a passing sleeve; or a rent where a fly was captured.  They have just the right torsion and drag on their connecting threads, whose anchors are just off the paper, but you feel that they too would be everyday and recognisable.  Celmins takes the everyday, and makes us see it with wonder.  Well that’s art, for me.

I started off by thinking the stars were curiously ‘similar’ to the webs.  And in certain ways they are.  But the webs are close up.  And the stars are infinitely distant.  They are still familiar to us, but in all ways they are truly stranger. 
I am impressed by Celmins’ dedication, almost a vocation, to her subjects.  You really have the impression of a mind at work, really working, sticking at it, doggedly, inventively.  Then there are the starscapes set beside tumbling aeroplanes, and my  mood darkened.  This work says so much, without seeming to. 

My favourite piece is 'Constellation – Uccello 1983' which brings together Celmins' own image of the night sky and a found image of a drawing by the Renaissance master Paolo Uccello. While Uccello’s  drawing of a chalice explores the representation of three-dimensional space on the flat page, Celmins' own image explores a different way to render space.  I sat down among the drawings and thought about the shape of space, and what we think we see as we look back millions of years into the past.  Webs, waves, stars, sand - Celmins is inspirational.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Getting ever so 21st century

Ravenglass Poetry Press have just arranged for 'The Treeless Region' to appear as an e-book.  If I had a Kindle, I could read it on it.  This is simultaneously very nice, and quite strange. 
It's probably a good thing, because of course if you write, you hope someone else will read, and perhaps new platforms for reading will just increase readership, and even opportunities for reading.  I like to think of executives skiving into poetry during long meetings. 

Here it is, anyway.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


At the launch of Southlight 8 recently, I met Kate Foster, a Borders artist.  Southlight 8 (poetry, prose, literary interview and illustration, published in Dumfries & Galloway contains a double page spread of Kate's work.  What with all the lambs hopping around at home, I'm drawn back to take another look at Kate's work.

I find it both delicate and hard.  The soft shades of her pastel drawings are certainly reminicent of wool, but also of mud, and the grey and green landscape.  Her lines are lean, and there's an awareness of skeleton, the boniness of a sheep's face.
She's exploring the many ways sheep make marks on the landscape.  They make their own landuse, in a mirror of our own.  They follow contours, favour certain slopes, sleep at the foot of particular dykes.  I notice ours move around according to time of day.  This is a very predictable pattern, but they vary it to take shelter from bad weather. The routines and the paths are learnt by the lambs at their mothers' tails, and passed on along the generations.
Find Kate Foster's work at, I recommend it.

Monday, 2 May 2011

New lambs, apple blossom and a general feeling of growth

Walking down to the field early on Saturday morning, I knew something was up.  Diamond, Dodd and Pearl hurried towards me, eager for what I bring in the bucket.  Ruby turned on her haunches, her head bent down, and I could just see a slim black shape close by her in the shadow of the dyke.  Then a second one as she moved them smartly off and away from me. 

Dougie brought the nasty gooey bottle of iodine, with which we swab newborns' umbilical cords.  While the other sheep searched for every last beet pulp nut in the trough, I casually sidled towards the lambs.  Ruby, wits honed by new motherhood, gathered them up and set off at a fast walk.  Grasping the iodine I'd just got the other hand on the curly back of the slower lamb, when it let out a horrified bleat and sprang to mother.  I missed.  We caught up with them later when all three were sleeping, and managed to catch one.  Once you've got one, you've got both, as the mother and second lamb mill anxiously around the first, which is wailing in panic in your hands.  Your hands are in no time striped bright yellow with iodine.
We have a biggish tup lamb and a smaller ewe lamb.  Both look fit and healthy, feeding well from Ruby's always abundant supply.  Doug suggested that as they were in all probability born the night before, they could be Kate and William.  However, even in a republican household, it was felt this was a spot callous: as cute as these lambs are now, their long-term future is er, quite short.  But jolly - no travelling, grow up with mum, auntie, and some cousins, plenty to eat and kindly treatment. 

Diamond and Pearl are now also very heavy on their feet, and should soon be lambing too.  Dodd is a wether, a pet lamb from 2 years ago.  He toils not, neither does he spin.  All he does is canter up to me to have his face stroked and his ears rubbed.  I don't feed him titbits in case he starts pushing people.  He stands close beside, eyes faraway, regressing to lambhood while I scratch under his ears. He is rather charming.

The apple blossom this year is amazing.  No rain to turn it brown, and - just and so - no frost to blacken it.  Look.

Hill  Lambs

This week the hill lambs are being born,
 licked dry in blowy glens.
They raise skinny rumps and totter,
cry thin as peewits. This morning

I found new twins nested below a dyke, just as,
an hour ago, they slept in warm red dark.

Knitted onto tiny frames their 
thick-whorled, black wool coats
are a perfect fit.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

I'm thrilled to relate that 'Lost At Sea' has been shortlisted for the Callum MacDonald Memorial Award, .  I feel I'm in tremendous company, and am much looking forward to the big night on 19 May, when all will be revealed. (But I think Anna Crowe should win! See below, I am a fan.)

And I'd not got over this before Hugh Bryden was on the phone again to announce that Roncadora Press has been shortlisted for the Michael Marks Publisher's Award.  I am very proud to say that 'Lost At Sea' was part of his submission.  Hope Hugh wins, he deserves it.  I've not forgotten seeing his studio and his house stacked high with half-built pamphlets, which he equably stitches and glues away at with astonishing speed and deftness.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Figure in a Landscape by Anna Crowe

Mariscat’s simple, restrained production of Anna Crowe’s pamphlet is appropriate to this short collection of poems inspired by ‘Paisatge amb figueres’ (Landscape with fig trees), by Catalan sculptor Andreu Maimo. As it came out of the envelope I was immediately entranced by the rich dull ochre of the cover and the secretive density of Maimo’s drawing of fig leaves on the cover.
The poems are just as much a treat.  Anna Crowe has written in memory of her sister, but Maimo’s art provides the meditative focus for the poems.  I love the way both poet and artist  circle around and around the same theme, revisiting and re-examining.  The poems are deeply thought-about, and moving.  They often have an intense sadness and regret, but their exactness keeps them from any tilt towards sentimentality:

‘Thursdays were jours de conge

for girls of the Cour Bastide
so we hid among the branches
to watch the kids of the ecole communale
At break the boys would chase
long lines of girls
their screams of joy
(we knew we must never scream)
a froth of petticoats
that broke like surf
on our silent wall’

With ease the poems evoke landscape, climate and places of Mallorca and Marseille:
‘Fig trees in front of Can Cabana
their green skirts making tents of shade
in a field of shimmering wheat’
Explorations of childhood memory are set against the poet’s voice now, resonant with intelligence and resilience.  Wisdom, in fact.
Anna’s poem ‘Doves, fig tree and walls’ was chosen by Jen Hadfield as one of the ‘Best Scottish Poems 2010’.  Hurray, well deserved.  Here it is, complete.  What a fabulous last stanza: the sense of what’s gone still travelling, full of hope, not knowing its fate,

'High walls, mute, shuttered windows:
La Cour Bastide
In the shady yard at break
in the hubbub of strange language
others chalked the grid of la marelle
numbered the spaces 1, 2, 3
then halfway L'ENFER
then 4, 5, 6 to the dome at the end LE CIEL
Aiming the stone
we ventured our small attempts with
awkward as geese on bumpy ground
we tried not to land in hell
Throw by throw
words, whole phrases
crept from between the lines
trembled like lizards in the cracks of walls
then flew like the stone from our throats
Sometimes our words drew smiles
as kind as the fig tree
in the box-hedged garden
of Madame la Directrice
–A toi le tour! –A moi? –Oui, oui
Lance ta pierre! Vas-y!

But now you have thrown your stone
far beyond these walls
and I imagine it flying
like one of Andreu's doves
into that blue

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Places & Poetry Postcards - my free workshop for children at RSPB Mersehead

I'm running a free workshop for children as part of Dumfries & Galloway Wildlife Festival.  It's called Places & Poetry Postcards, and it's at RSPB Mersehead on Friday 15 April.  Meet at 10am.  We'll go outside first for inspiration and exploration, then come in to draft, edit and generally write some poems onto Poetry Postcards, hand-stamped and decorated to take away with you. Ring me on 07504 649 150 to book.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Scotland's Poetry Capital

I've returned from my first visit to St Andrew's and StAnza 2011, head spilling over with words.  It's felt like a long weekend because so much was new and so much was going on, and now I'm back, a short one.
The town seemed almost constantly sunny, crowstepped, winding, full of people.  Hey, it's nice, though I did think the high-end shopping must reflect the royals-at-uni element.   

The only regular festival dedicated to poetry in Scotland had chosen as themes for 2011 Timepiece and The Poet's Ark.  Certainly I heard great discussions of history in poetry - and some great poems - at a delicious Poetry Breakfast (pastries, poetry and coffee, I rest my case).  And interesting thoughts about how writing about place implicitly invites us to write about time.  And Polly Atkin did a great reading (at pointblank range, standing in for a missing poet) which addressed the Ark.   Eerie, feral foxes and a wonderfully exact little poem I've heard before featuring frogs in a child's red tin wheelbarrow.

A treat for me was to be there with what Hugh Bryden calls the 'Roncadora Stable'.  Roncadora featured in the StAnza programme as one of the invited exhibitions ‘Black and White’, which was installed in the picturesque – and appropriate – half timbered surroundings of the Trust House Museum. 
Rab Wilson and Hugh McMillan both read on the main programme.  Rab was launching not only his new pamphlet (though that is too small a word for this creation) ‘Ye’re There Horace!’, a Scots version of Horace’s Odes, but also his great new collection from Luath, ‘A Map for the Blind’.  (I still want one Rab).

Hugh McMillan’s reading was likewise at sell-out, with the audience emerging still grinning.  His new Roncadora pamphlet, a nifty version of drystone origami, ‘Cairn’ is a bit of a beauty.

Andy Forster, who was Literature Development Officer in D&G for 5 years before he went off to work for The Wordsworth Trust over the border in Cumbria, was at StAnza with his lovely Roncadora pamphlet ‘Digging’.  He was very good at being there for the craic, too.    
I went to see my Roncadora pamphlet, ‘Lost At Sea’, looking beautiful in an old fashioned glass-topped museum case in the Trust House Museum.  I met many new friends in the space of three days, and was made very welcome.

From Catriona Taylor's 'A Thousand Sails' inspired by Sorley McLean
 Sleep was short and the gaps between readings, workshops, exhibitions, discussion groups and talking a lot in the café-bar were extremely short.  Highlights were the Poet’s Market, the SPL's gigantic Knit A Poem (it’s a Dylan Thomas poem and would cover a village green), Philip Gross, Ciaran Carson, Douglas Dunn, Marilyn Hacker, Catriona Taylor’s gorgeous exhibition ‘A Thousand Sails’ inspired by Sorley McLean, and more…

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Writing about a derelict beauty spot

Crichope Linn was once a destination.  It possessed all that a devotee of Romantic Landscape could desire, and folk came on the train, got off at Closeburn Station, queued up in the station yard to board a charabanc, and bowled between the narrow dykes and hedges to the foot of the Linn Burn some three miles away.

No-one's got off at Closeburn Station for some time.  In fact the last time I remember it being in the news some entrepreneurial villager was caught using a station shed for the cultivation of a cannabis crop.  But Crichope Linn was much visited throughout the 19th and early 20th century. It was much written on too, by early Banksy types who could handle a neat chisel for Roman capitals.

Perhaps its paths were better maintained then, and its vegetation managed.  It was in a wild state when I clambered up in mid February, trees down and tangled, the path sliding away, fresh rockfall damming the burn. It has a bleak and gothic appeal.

Here's a cinquain about those trees.

Wind like
a weight that can’t
be borne.  The sound of wood
tearing.  Enormity of dark.

I'm writing about it for a project called 'Writing Ground', as are friends and poets Vivien Jones, Jackie Galley and Fiona Russell.  We'll present our efforts at a reading on Friday 15 April, with support from University of Glasgow at the Crichton,.as part of the programme for Dumfries & Galloway Wildlife Festival.  7pm.  The Midsteeple, Dumfries.  Free wine, you know.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Finding Archipelago

I went along to The Crichton where indefatigable Dumfries poetry campaigner Dave Borthwick had arranged no less than the launch of Archipelago 5, from Clutag Press.  Bending my flexi-time at work quite elastically, I managed to get there to hear Andrew McNeillie deliver a really interesting talk about the origins of this creamy, slow-paced, textured publication.  Apparently Archipelago was born after a liquid lunch in Barcelona, which is quite a pleasing thought in itself, but I really enjoyed Andrew's descriptions of his early life in Wales, and his sense of his destiny across the Irish Sea to Galloway, and the lost wonder of North Clutag, the family farm in Galloway.  He talked then about spending time as a young man on the Aran Islands, and waved around a book or two, which I will track down.
We all went off with a back number of Archipelago, which I have enjoyed so much I've actually bought the next one off the website  Beautiful artwork by Norman Ackroyd, Stac Lee and Stac Armin, and more.  Some satisfying essays, strange, edge of the horizon poetry from Peter Mackay and John Burnside.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

'Lost At Sea' launches (no tacking)

The grey waters of Hugh Bryden's beautiful treatment of my 'Lost At Sea' saw their official launch last week.  Gracefield Arts Centre Cafe was so packed out for me and Andy Forster (launching the excellent 'Digging') that more chairs were scurried for.  Oh it cheers you up so much when you're about to read.

I realised on the way to the event, packed into a car in the murky dark of February with rather a lot of my family, that 'Lost At Sea' is a kind of travelogue.  It proved to be one of the easiest readings, because of this, I think - it has its own internal narrative, in which both the Shetland Islands and my great grandfather and his family are explored, and glimpses caught of them.

My 82 year old mum came along, and it was lovely to read to her, as she has done all the family research that I have (rather) plundered.  She kept beaming at me.  I found reading 'The Ditty Box of Thomas Gilbert Hunter Aiken' to be a strange kind of crux, as it contains many of the fragments of story that come down the generations.  I suppose this is how our lives are likely to be summarised.  And they're not likely to be so adventurous. 

I've got his telescope safe.  But will I one day have to decide whether to keep that charts table?

The Ditty Box of Thomas Gilbert Hunter Aiken

That he left Church Closs
and his mother and stowed
away on a Tyne collier
at thirteen, dodging on board
in the wash and blow
of Lerwick harbour.

That sometimes he ate
ships biscuits so maggoty they
shuffled across his plate. That he sailed
round the Horn. That he shivered
one winter on a vessel held ice-bound
for weeks in the Baltic.

That he was wrecked
in the tide-race of Ushant, rescued
by a brig bound for Cuba and dropped
at the mouth of the Tagus to row
under Torre de Belem
into white-paved Lisbon.

That in Valparaiso he
punched a man and knocked him
overboard and then
jumped in and saved him. 
That he married twice but no-one
ever mentioned the first time.

That he had a strong face, a trim beard
and fierce eyebrows.  His eyes look far
past my shoulder.  That we know this
from a photograph.  And also have his telescope,
his drawing instruments and his cut-down,
hacked-about charts table.

That he lived to see his sons survive the War
and held his grandchildren, as babies.
That his sextant and the ditty box went missing
at last, in the bombing of Liverpool
in 1940.  That he never
went back to Lerwick.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Real Place and Katrina Porteous

Spent Saturday down at The Wordsworth Trust, enjoying a workshop run by Katrina Porteous entitled 'Spirit of Place' and looking at writing about place.  I liked her take on keeping it real, as it were, and being outside.  She'd brought a mysterious tupperware box full of soily, sandy objects (I had to imagine them, as will be explained) - which was never opened, due to the workshop taking place in the inner sanctum of the Wordsworth Trust, the Reading Room in the Jerwood Centre.  Strikingly beautiful, this room houses the treasures of the Romantic Era and as such has its light and heating controlled for the preservation of irreplaceable manuscripts.  No sandy, soily pebbles, rabbit skulls, damp bits of moss are allowed. 

So we went outside and did entertaining exercises based on close focus, and sounds near to and further away.  Truly interesting conversations and readings of different poems.  Dialect words and placenames.  I'm obsessed by placenames and besotted by maps.  I bought a copy of Katrina's 'Dunstanburgh', which was created as a radio play and designed for many voices.  I am very taken with its rhythms and half rhymes, and its sense of interrupted narratives and layered voices -

'In the courtyard, around the foundations,
The kitchens, the chapel, the Constable's chambers,

Leathery wings flit.  Woodlice trundle,
Armour on stone.  A spider trembles

A web's bull's-eye in the moon's full glare
On the arc of its journey, fierce white fire

Catches and fills a heart-shaped window.

And the deepest dark of the castle walls -
Doors going nowhere, hearths, holes,

Gardrobes, stairways bent at odd angles -
Join with the wider dark, the miles

Of field and heugh, and wind-blown fell,

Millenia of dark, the men
And women lost beyond recall,

Absorbed in silence, earth and stone.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Stones, Motels and Roncadora Press

Graham Fulton reading from Black Motel

Hugh McMillan reading Cairn

The cafe bar at Gracefield Arts Centre was filled with laughing people this evening, who just now and again emitted The Pause, followed by The Slight Sigh.  So it was cracking good poetry from Graham Fulton, visiting us from Paisley, and from Hugh McMillan, who must have rowed in from Penpont.

Roncadora Press has its beautiful work all over the walls.  There was Rab's 'Horace's First Buik o Satires', and Andy Forster's 'Digging', the Devorgilla Bridge (that got its piccy in The Guardian last year) and John Burns' new pamphlet with the glorious coloured cover. Hugh B has made such an amazing job of 'Lost At Sea' that I feel no shame at all standing in front of it admiringly. 

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Poetry of Soup

I have to say that in this pic we have already
eaten rather a lot of it
Our last and largest pumpkin ripened in the conservatory, turning from a striped green to a deep orange in light and frost-free conditions.  Though it got so sharp outside(so minus 16)that in the end I did worry about the frost free bit. 
Every now and then I remembered to check the pumpkin was still solid.  Last weekend I carried it back into the kitchen, and distilled a huge pot of golden soup from last summer's store. 

Sorry if this sounds smug, but, you know, I am.  Think of all that weeding and forking compost.  My dues are paid.  The ends have justified the means. I claim this comfort in the black-ice dark of January. 

As Robert Crawford so rightly said:
'A soup so thick you could shake its hand
and stroll with it before dinner.'

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Making the Beds for the Dead

I've just noticed my copy of 'Making the Beds for the Dead' by Gillian Clark, is due back to the library tomorrow.  That's the excellent Scottish Poetry Library outpost in Dumfries.  I've already renewed it once, and might just ring up and see if I can keep it for another month.  Eleri Mills did the cover.

What a lovely collection.  Try this from 'The Physicians of Myddvai':

A crack in glass,
the scream and shadow
of a Hawk, close and low
enough to blow the heart.

There's something so sudden, so loud, so disorientating about this stanza. - and then that intimate body blow in the last line and a half.  I absolutely love it.  It reeks of the mysteries of the Mabinogion, though it's not such an old story.  The Physicians of Myddfai were a family of physicians who lived in the parish of Myddfai, Carmarthenshire. I did a bit of looking up.  They are thought to have been related to Rhiwallon Feddyg and his sons, Cadwgan, Gruffudd and Einion, who were physicians to Rhys Gryg, Lord of Dinefwr in the thirteenth century. It is believed that their descendants continued to practice as physicians in the area until the eighteenth century. The gravestones of the last physicians in the line, David Jones (who died in 1719) and John Jones (who died in 1739) are to be seen in the parish church of Myddfai today.

Gillian Clark writes very well about sheep.  I appreciate 'Wethers':

Spring-born, their lives lived
on the one slope, in the one flock.
Summer, they forget their mothers,

forget our hands, learn grass,
grow wild, wander afield on the hill.
Winter, they know us again, grow tame,
calling for hay at the gate.


Friday, 7 January 2011

Cheered up by thoughts of St Andrews

I've sprung into action and bought my tickets for StAnza.  Was inspired to be very sharp off the mark in order to lay hands on a ticket to John Burnside's Round Table reading.  But it all looks fabulous. I'll hear Stewart Conn, Marilyn Hacker, Paul Farley, Selima Hill, Ciaran Carson, Douglas Dunn, not to mention the one and only Rab Wilson and the devastatingly unique Hugh McMillan, and (as they say) more.

Tonight it's snowing.  Our 11 year old spent his Christmas money on a faster sledge, so there is loud rejoicing.