Last week, ‘Black Middens’ was launched in Waterstone’s Glasgow. It’s the 31st edition of New Writing Scotland, and the second edition that’s carried one of my poems.
With a rotating editorship, its connection to ASLS and Glasgow University, it really is a prestige publication – attracting the very top flight of poetry, fiction, drama and life writing over its years. Given I must have been 6 when the first edition came out, I can’t claim to have a complete knowledge of its history, but for some time its arrival has marked a highlight of my reading year, and the publication has introduced me to authors whose writings have become good friends over the years.
However much we try to expand our tastes, exposures and influences, when confronted with a chunky publication such as this (30 and 31 have been particularly “bumper”), it is hard, for me at any rate, not to commit certain writerly reading shortcomings.
1 – the self perusal. Okay, I do this. It probably does make some sense, but really. I wrote the thing, there’s pages and pages of stuff I’ve never even dreamt existed, yet sure enough, before I’ve hardly seen the package land on the doormat I’ve rived the thing open, located my work in the publication and read it, quickly assessed the desirability or otherwise of its environs and then maybe, just maybe, I’ll read the things around it before actually addressing the publication as its own holistic offering.
2 – the reading of the mates’ work. As above, but after. ‘I see so and so’s got a poem in’, ‘I wondered what such and such had been up to’, ‘xyz was telling me about this that or the next thing’. This behaviour is a whole lot more rational than the self perusal, and slightly less narcissistic. But its working on it. One of the wonderful things about writing is the interesting people we meet when we haul ourselves away from our notebooks, our procrastinations and our distractions. There’s everything to be said for engaging with the work of those whose company we enjoy. But as a reader, its important to expose yourself to the new, the unexplored, the never heard of before. An annual publication like New Writing Scotland is perfect for this.
3 – (and finally) living in the literary ghetto. There’s no question that its important as a poet to read poetry, but for years I read little if any of any other literary forms. I’d watch plays and films, but the worlds of fiction and the short story became a foreign country to me. This was partly a question of time – there simply not being enough time to read everything that has to be read, I couldn’t justify reading which wouldn’t further my understanding of poetry. But whilst my most succesful literary output is certainly poetic, and I’ve always had a love of what Stewart Conn refers to as the beastly stuff, my formation as a reader and by extension a writer has been well served by the novel, the short story and the biography. To neglect a large part of publications which mix forms by sticking within these narrow parameters is to close myself off to further growth and development.
In an effort to avoid these shortcomings in my reading, for Black Middens I’ve adopted a more systematic very simple approach. Of course, I self perused. I cherry picked a couple of big names, old friends and rising stars. After which, I’m reading this snapshot of Scottish writing from A to Z.
Apart from forcing me to burrow my way in to pieces that were one or two steps outside my literary comfort zone, the benefits of this approach have been to expose myself to writers I wasn’t previously aware of and whose work clearly resonates with me.
I was interested in the relationship this publication had to the independence debate. One or two pieces seem to directly connect with it. Harry Giles’ ‘Brave’ paints a visceral, no holds barred picture of Scotland’s shortcomings and ambitions. Sharon MacGregor’s first ever submission ‘Independence’ seems to picture Scotland as a downbeaten wife finally ‘cleaning up our act’.
The relevance this publication has, however, to the independence debate is more subtle thant a party poitical broadcast, a piece of polemics or any other politically motivated piece of writing.
The Scotland which shows herself from between these covers is a Scotland who is neither too afraid to show her strengths nor to examine her weaknesses. She is a Scotland who is connected not only to the furthest flung parts of herself, and to the Rest of the UK, but also to Norway, Berlin, North America in a big way, to Trukey, to Spain to Australia. She is the Scotland of the crumbling high rise block and the Scotland of the just installed indoor toilet.
My own piece, ‘Venture’, neither exclusively nor explicitly addresses the independence debate, but I don’t think its unreasonable of me to suggest that its message is a fundamental warning against the small c conservatism, the fear of the unknown and the reluctance towards change which leaves people trapped in loveless marriages, dissatisfying occupations and, yes, other long since dysfunctional political and economic unions, to neither party’s benefit.
Reading this book, I don’t need to imagine a Scotland with the courage to decide what’s right for her people, with the skills to manage her own economy and with the self belief to determine her own future. She’s already imagined herself, and is waiting for you to take her hand as you venture into a new era with her. What’s stopping you?