Madiba

Today the world says farewell, pays its last respects to a man who rose above adversity; a man who transcended politics, who embedded in the global imagination the possibility that we can move forward as a human race, that life can be better, that we can as human beings not only be as good as we possibly can be, but better.

I’m not an authority on global politics; I can’t give you a summation of his statecraft.  I’m not an expert on African history; I can’t place him in the development of his nation, or of his continent.  Doubtless, there will be further outpouring of text about the man who led resistance against the apartheid regime in South Africa – much of it from better qualified, more skillful commentators than I.

All I can do is lshare what he and his example have meant in my life.  As a teenager in Yell, race relations was a distant, largely abstract concept.  In South Africa, it was anything but.  It was altogether concrete.

I was born in 1976.  My earliest political memories are of the 1980s.  Margaret Thatcher was tying the hands of trade unions in Britain – an expedient measure for her dismantling of public ownership, and of the industrial base to Great Britain’s economy.  The USA and the USSR were amassing insane stockpiles of nuclear weaponry, enough to destroy the planet many times over, and I lived in perpetual anxiety over mutually assured destruction.  With the RAF SaxaVord early warning system and Sullom Voe Oil Terminal both within fifty miles, we would be wiped out pretty early in a Soviet attack.

And in South Africa, the vast majority of the population were second class citizens due to the colour of their skin.  I could not believe such a state of affairs was not only existed in the twentieth century, but was supported and perpetuated by a supposedly educated white population.

Mandela’s captivity became a focal point in the debate.  The song ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ was an anthem in the west, an emblem of solidarity with ordinary human beings living through extraordinary adversity.  The public debate around Mandela’s release received more and more international attention, conducted with one voice notable by it’s absence – his own.

Characteristically, Mandela used this attention not to his own benefit, but to the benefit of his own people.  Conditional offer after conditional offer was refused, until the regime had no option other than to release him without condition.

In so doing, they effectively signed their power away.  And so, on the 11th of February 1990, 5 months before my 14th birthday, I sat by the fire with a global television audience and watched history happen.

That moment has stayed with me.  I saw in it that change could happen.  I saw in it that being true to your principles, and suffering for them, was not only ‘right’ in an abstract moral sense, but could yield results – real, positive, concrete results for the people around you.  I learnt that the reactionary, conservative forces which rule the world didn’t always win; that if you refused them their way, they could be forced to yield.  I learnt a lot about grace, about dignity, and a little bit about what greatness looks like.

His achievements since that day not only lived up to the promise of that moment, but exceeded even the highest expectations, as he negotiated his country to peace; his leadership and his example showed that even the deepest of wounds could heal – not with ‘time’, but with commitment to truthfulness, to forgiveness and to recognising and respecting people’s humanity.

The lessons I began to learn on that day are easily unlearnt by pressures, by ambitions, distractons.  I’m certain the thirteen year old boy who witnessed history being made that day would exact some valid criticism at the thirty seven year old father of two.

But both retain the deepest admiration for the man who showed us how we could be.  He will be laid to rest today, but his example will not be forgotten.  And I know I won’t be the only one who tries to keep that example alive.  Nor the only one who strives to honour his memory, with even a shadow of what we’ve learnt.  From his integrity.  From his dignity. From his grace.

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Fortune Favours

I made a friend today.  Or, truth be told, I had the great pleasure of seeing a good chunk of like minded peoples’ efforts rewarded, there dreams filling out – not exactly coming to fruition, but putting out enough light and colour to make their world, mine, and the world of the people we love a brighter, more hopeful place to live.

I’d first heard of Tell It Slant, the new pop up poetry bookshop, currently flowering on Renfrew Street in Glasgow, when Ellen MacAteer – poet, songwriter, and fellow Clydebuilt mentee – posted a poll on Facebook.  She wanted direction around various options for the name of a new venture.  When I was swirling around this discussion, ‘The Glasgow Poetry Bookshop’ was the lead contender, so I got the jist of her efforts straightforwardly enough.

So last week, when I bumped into Ellen briefly at Chris Agee’s excellent Literary Lunchtime at Cafe Gandolfi. The last of this year’s series featured John Burnside, Chris Agee himself and Alexander Hutchison, who mentored Ellen in Clydebuilt, who routinely gives and gives and gives, on this occasion giving an characteristically excellent performance, as did his stage mates. Well, I was delighted to hear, amongst other things, that Tell It Slant had made its first sale.

And even more pleased to hear it was to someone outside of the normal poetry world.  The pull of something new and fresh, the sight of Ellen and Matt’s flowering with all its promise, enticed a neighbour in, who couldn’t resist the scent of a well dreamt truth.

Today, they made another sale, one of quite a few from what I can make out, this time to someone very much inside the ‘normal poetry world’, which of course is about as normal as any other normal world – ie not  very, and entirely so at one and the same time.

Of course, I’d been intending to visit Tell It Slant, and for longer than that I’d been intending to visit One Cube Or Two, an artisan bakery and coffee shop which first appropriated that little corner of Glasgow where the dreams are coming true, but a bit of an impetus never did hurt, and never will.

And that came this morning.  Somewhere on my breakfast-time seine netting of available comment in the social media regarding What Was Going On, I happened upon something from Sam TongueAnother Clydebuilter, Sam is co-founder of fourfold, a new magazine, issue one of which is on sale at Tell It Slant, Aye Aye Books in the CCA, and at the Scottish Poetry Library.

And fourfold was another seed which had been lying, waiting for the sun to come – Katherine Sowerby of (guess what) Clydebuilt fame, and recipient of a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust had outlined the venture to me at the New Writing Scotland 31 Launch. fourfold is a broadsheet publication which delivers four poems from four poets across four pages – all in one sheet, folded to accommodate, and release, the resonances across different poets and the distinctions between them, fourfold is a genuine Objet D’Art.

So I couldn’t resist locking my screen, donning scarf, cap, bag and coat and pushing on out into the midday drizzle of Glasgow today.  And I’m glad I did.  When I walked in, this little corner of Glasgow was full, full of poetry.  I could have blown a weeks wages easy, but I settled for the fourfold I’d come in for, and a copy of Night’s Fresh Velvet from Amy Anderson, also of Clydebuilt. I’d missed a couple of Amy’s launch readings to my chagrin, and am relieved to have a copy of her debut at last.

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The joint launch of Tell It Slant and fourfold1 takes place on Friday 13th December 2013, at 134 Renfrew Street (go up the ramp and turn left).  That’s tomorrow night as I write.  And it could well be tonight as you read.

Whichever, the shop is instantly the number one go to place for poetry books in Glasgow (and much more besides).  And fourfold, this is the first time I’ve written about it.  It will be a feature in my literary life, I can tell.  And also in yours.  Aren’t we the lucky ones.

 

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Laanch

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.

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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?

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Marking time

Exactly five years ago, I was blinking into the daze of fresh parenthood, about half a day in.  After forty two weeks and about  two and a half days of resisting every reasonable coercion and encouragement, my first child cried into the ten thirty of a Saturday morning.

Half dream dozing, half elated, the three of us descended from the heady heights of the labour ward, situated high above the accompanying sprawl of a time served maternity hospital winding down to closure around forty years.

I stayed as long as I was allowed, and return home to Facebook the world, supping ham hough lentil soup and Scapa 16.

I think I knew I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for; but I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.

Five years on, and after midnight present wrapping the helpless babe I cradled all those years ago after a day of presents, cake, cards and happy birthday singing.  Not to mention primary school.

Where the time goes, I can’t tell you.  What it brings – a truly independent human being, who cannot help but challenge, frustrate, affirm and reward me; who’s unswerving sense of himself staggers me on a daily basis; who’s innocent faith in the human beings around him humbles me to my core; who’s potential and fragility perplexes and amazes me.

Tonight, I’m supping a slight measure of Bushmills, acquired to toast the Emerald Isle’s great loss a couple of weeks back.  Tomorrow, The Great Party will happen.

Five years time?  Who knows where it will take us.  But with a bit of luck, and some of something more tangible I can figure what I’ll bring to them. 

Slainte

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High Society

I’ve not said much for a while on here. For once, I observe this with a complete absence of blogger apologia. I have been, it gives me great pleasure to say, busy. Not that that’s anything new – with two little people running around my feet and the day job persistently coaxing me to redefine the term ‘day’ (if not its conditions) being busy is by and large the norm for the foreseeable.

That said, I’ve actually had two weeks away from the office, during which I’ve done some research into two great influences of mine. The first of these is Hugh MacDiarmid. Like it or not, one of the things I do best in life is write poetry in Shetlandic. I did once form a habit of writing in a kind of everyscots, but it has been some time since I made anything in this tongue, ithir as a dreadfu din. As a student of poetry and of Scots, I was drawn to the works of MacDiarmid like a moth to a flame.

Well, I’ve recently had the great privilege of learning about a big influence on his writing, the Langholm Common Riding. I’d intended to take footage of the event, but on the eve of my departure the VJ camera decided to report unfit for work.

Armed with a stills camera, a good pair of boots, some stamina and the best guidance I could have prayed for I witnessed a truly mesmerising spectacle as the burgh marked its boundaries, and its citizens past and present showed exactly how far flung the boundaries of human achievement are.

I’m working on an account of my experiences, some poetic responses and the better stills I took. If they’ll have me, I plan to return with good kit and collaborators to begin a film in tribute to the way he changed Scottish poetry and its standing in the world.

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The other influence is perhaps a little less obvious. In many ways, the mean streets of Leith and London were a million miles away from my background (they just were), and as far from the work I’ve produced in the intervening years (they just are), but in 19993 I was a very easily influenced teenager. I sat my highers that year, and a book which went on to define a generation was published.

Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting‘ could hardly have been more antithetical to my life experience up until that point, son of an island Manse. I’d been sooth, but never for more than two weeks at a time. That said, my brother did (and does) live in Edinburgh, and I had a functional familiarity with the city (even if I only really got to know the Port of Leith when alumni from the University of Stirling settled there around the turn of the century).

That novel did two things. First, it offered more a crow bar in the door than a credit card in the lock of my horizons. Intravenous drug use, prostitution and organised violence were not part of my experience, but I knew they were part of human life. The novel ‘Trainspotting’ in its characteristically uncompromising fashion offered them up – behaviours which did not define the characters behind them, but which were defined by real, believable human actors.

The other, paradigmatic impact the book did to my pliable young brain was to make ‘Scots’, or ‘Non Standard English’ or ‘Colloquialism (ya cunt)’ okay. Not just okay to speak – I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where the Queens English was secondary in day to day life. The warm embrace it received critically (and commercially, but I was more of an idealist back then) provided a kind of validation to me, along with the fact that it was in fact exceptionally well written. I can’t remember much of what I wrote when I was 17, but the fact I wrote so readily in my middir tongue at 27 can not be decoupled from my positive experience with this book.

So the appearance of a prequel to the world’s first meeting with Renton, Sick Boy, Tommy, Spud and Begbie had my whistle well and truly whetted. After the much bemoaned office chipped in to get me birthday Waterstones vouchers, I grabbed the chance to acquire a novel I felt I more compelled to read than any since Robert Alan Jamieson’s ‘Da Happy Laand’.

I need to read ‘Trainspotting’ again, especially now I’ve topped up on the antique antics of the chemically enhanced YLT. I do remember ‘Trainspotting’ having greater urgency, and the tension of any first novel, especially one as risk loving as that. But everything I loved about that book I love about ‘Skagboys’.

To draw perhaps an outlandish parallel, Welsh is as rare a writer as was C M Grieve in his embrace of politics. They have changed in the intervening decades between each other’s output, but young Kirsty Grieve ae Langholm became an outspoken political figure as surely as he became a uniquely independent political mind. Young Irvine of fair Edina has (I feel) followed in that tradition, and allowed demographic struggle as well as the more savoury psychological variety to flavour his contribution to the early twentieth century.

‘Skagboys’ opens with a brutal, strikers side account of the policing atrocity authorised by Margaret Thatcher’s government at Orgreave in 1984. Our eyes and ears through this piece of national history is Mark Renton, immortalised in celluloid by Danny Boyle and actor Ewan MacGregor.

His character is central, and one feels closest to Welsh’s perspective. I’m not suggesting that Renton is Welsh, I think the latter is far too clever for that (and arguably the former, but lets not get smart); the fact does remain though that Renton is a literate character in the way that his drummer, Keezbo, isn’t – or heaven forfend Francis Begbie, the seething mass of potential, actual and already perpetuated violence.

The only match for Renton in misdirected nouse is Simon Williamson, a Sick Boy who uses his dictionary as a bludgeon with which to elicit companionship, and his silver tongue as the rapier to pin it down so it can’t run before he does.

All 548 pages are packed with humour, empathy and the sweet tragedy of human lives whose direction is determined by something they have no control over. For me, the best deal was in the pages during which all the major players in each other’s heroin dependent lives are contained in a rehab clinic in Fife. Here, Renton really bares a little bit of his writer’s soul (and a big bit of his human one), and addresses the language question cleverly (‘That is more like how I sound in my head heid. Sometimes. Why try tae sound different? Why the fuck be the same as every other cunt? Ah mean, whae’s fuckin interest does it serve?).

In the final, most devastatingly and beautifully believable tale of the book, you can hardly deny Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting industry Mark Renton’s deliciously post modern observation to Sick Boy that “It’s no like some famous cunt’s gaunny come along and make a film ay our lives, is it?”

As far as I understand it, this has already happened. This cunt Welsh, however, has long since done more. He’s given them a voice.

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Virtue never cuts you up at the lights

Having a fulfilling creative life is not exactly the easiest thing to do. I try to make it a focus, employ discipline with myself and my practise, engage with ever broader groups of audiences and partners, do all the things you do to make it a continuum rather than a collection of isolated expressions and inspirations. But in their very natures, creative pursuits can seem to be a bit stop-go.

As with all such endeavours, when it’s ‘Go’ you can imagine life should always be like this. What were you doing, wishing things would fall into place when all that was missing was a bit of get up and go?

In all honesty, I think a little bit of guilt about something isn’t an entirely bad thing.

What can be a bad thing is when that guilt overwhelms you during the ‘Stop’ periods – even the briefest of them can leave you in a deep chasm; a deep chasm where neither can you remember how you managed to create the synthesis of language, emotion and sound that so satisfied you when you were ‘going’, nor can you envisage a time when the happy result will ever occur again.

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Meanwhile, the things we try to put out of our minds with varying degrees of success – the emails sent to funders and potential collaborators, the brown envelopes stuffed with your most precious pinnacles of poetry precision dropped into red pillar boxes with the Queen’s head opening the doors of editorial offices – have lives of their own without us, and are waiting to make us feel better.

This happened to me on my birthday last weekend. At least three years ago I walked in to Glasgow to the Thirteenth Note to be the subject of a documentary. A friend of mine was completing a film apprenticehip with GMAC, and had been briefed to make a short documentary exploring artistic process.

Of all art forms, writing is perhaps the least dramatic, especially on a visual level. If you write, you’ll know what I mean. If you don’t, it involves a lot of sitting about, sometimes with lots of words being written down, often with none – a lot of re-reading and some head scratching and pen chewing. Picasso seducing a naked muse in his riviera studio it aint.

But Iftekhar Gafar, an Afghan film maker living in Glasgow chose to make it his focus. We spoke for a while about writing, techniques, about where and when I was in the habit of writing; I read a couple of poems, and then I sat down, wrote a poem and drank a glass of wine.

That was pretty much that, and it became at first something I was interested in seeing the end result of, then something about which I wondered whether there was an end result, and then something very much in the past, a memory I could recall but which never came near the forefront of my mind.

Until last weekend, when the end result was posted to my Facebook timeline as a birthday greeting. It’s nice to see it, and I think the team have done a good job of a tricky task they set themselves.

What do you think?

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Whit’s happenin?

Quite a lot here at Magnie central.  In a conversation with a friend this week I quoted Auden‘s doubtless abused maxim that “poetry makes nothing happen”.

I’ve seen myself and others ‘defend’ poetry against this assertion.  My view on this has always been and remains that ‘nothing happening’ is a good thing – a desirable outcome both for Auden, who lived through two World Wars; and also for Yeats, who the poet was eulogising, and despite making a lot of literature also made a big contribution to Ireland’s painful struggle for independence.  It is also a desirable thing for many people today in a world where everything needs done yesterday and many people truly rest when they’ve finally been and gone away. Don Share formidably explores their relationships with each other, poetry, happenings and nothingness.

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I remember W B Yeats digging me out of a poetic hole plenty years ago now – I’d been writing pretty fervently and reading everything I could get a hold of and ending running out of steam, and losing the sense of direction which had forced me to write.  It happens.  As you explore an idea through your own words and others, and open yourself up to related and opposing ideas you can find yourself far removed from where you started.  This in itself is an acheivement – you have expanded your mind, your knowledge and your work – but sometimes it leaves you unsure of where you are and confused about where to go.

This is about where I was, when I read The Wild Swans at Coole in the Saturday Guardian on the 900 from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Everything made sense again – immediately I ordered Seamus Heaney’s selection of Yeats, proceeded to devour the lyrical genius and found words once more flowed onto the page, both at and against my will.

Today, all sorts of everything is happening, and hopefully a little bit of nothing.  Poetry isn’t responsible for all of it.  But it’s behind a lot of it, and will come out of somewhere unexpected.

 

 

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Beaten well

This weekend the world shifted

Enough for Byres Road to stop

Like it hasn’t for more years

Than the drum hasn’t stamped summer

With Glasgow Sun.

I don’t know

how it is to have a Gee

Cee Cee official tell you

You can’t drum

I’m just a sun hungry

drum drunk

Happy Westender

Glad somebody

Does

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A send off and a welcome aboard

A lot has happened in poetry since I last posted, on my way to one of the most underground readings I’ve ever been to in any capacity.   I guess a week is a long time.  Caesura 13 was packed out – with old friends, poets, people I’ve never seen before.  Before the first break I perched on a concrete floor before sorting myself out with some seating.  Someone tried to knock the bottle of Pinot Noir I’d taken in for corkage as it patiently waited for me to finish my Polish tea, but I got it back before it was too drastically dented and had my corkage paid for me.  What went around came around.  I discovered to my relief that I still have what it takes to read in Spanish and Shetlandic.  The audience listened and listened and listened, did me the good grace of chuckling at my introductions (I wanted them to) and seemed to enjoy the set.  The other readers were eclectic, gracious, illuminating.  I boarded the last train west with a couple of publications, emblematic in their own ways of different currents in poetry publication.

The first was Rob Mackenzie’s latest collection, The Good News, a suitably theological moniker for Rob’s second collection.  It will I hope receive many reviews – it certainly deserves them but my chronologically challengedness forbids me from creating one for you here at this particular time.  I mention it as it turns out the volume will be one of the last single author collections to carry the Salt imprint – a touchstone of independent poetry in Britain carrying over four hundred titles in the space of thirteen years.  The most cursory insult to arithmetic computes that at over 30 a year, more than 2 and a half every month.  And they’ve slowed down significantly in the past few years – suggesting that at its peak the skeleton staffed Salt juggernaut was bringing half a dozen new collections to the poetry buying market every month – a large proportion of those being debuts.  I can honestly say I would personally struggle to read that much poetry – never mind typeset it, print it, design covers, price print runs, raise press releases, enter competitions, inform festivals and all the other time consuming and important aspects of doing what Salt did – publishing it.

It has been a remarkable achievement, but yesterday the publisher, one of a loose handful of independents to carry book length poetry, announced it will be publishing its last dozen or so book length collections in the coming year, and focussing their poetry efforts on the Best of British series, as well as further developing there anthologising activities.  The announcement has sparked debate and comment amongst the virtual poetry community.  One thing about the whole Salt project that you have to acknowledge is it’s ability to spark debate and comment.  A Good Thing.  And even now with its evolution from what was its initial raison d’etre (please correct me if I’m wrong), the force of nature that is team Emery have set tongues a wagging and fingers a tapping.

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It is sad news for the authors.  Convincing someone to publish your poetry is very, very difficult, and nobody who has published their first collection with them will relish the prospect of going back to square one to find the right fit.  The reality, which no-one knows as well as Salt, is that to produce high quality, single author book length collections of poetry simply is not economic.  Unless you have substantial support from an arts administration body, an educational institution or a wider publishing business, poetry publishing is a very noble, complex, spiritually uplifting and equally frustrating money pit.  And recently, they’ve found that literary fiction has less barriers, and/or greater economic potential.  I’m grateful to Salt for making the work of so many writers available to me over the years, and can’t really blame them for pursuing something that adds up after over a decade defying the laws of probability. I also applaud that defiance.

The other publication I left Yellow Bench with last Friday night was Theresa Munoz’s ‘Close’.  ‘Close’ is Theresa’s debut pamphlet, published by Happenstance – another phenomenon in another publishing world.  If it feels like there has never been less space for single author collections, there can rarely have ever been a wider variety of small press outlets.  The shortlist for the Callum MacDonald Memorial Awards was published this week.  This award has recognised excellence in Scottish pamphlet publishing since 1998, and carries the plumb prize for the winning author of a two week residency with Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece in July.

Happenstance are in the running this year, with ‘After the Creel Fleet’ by Niall Campbell, the virtuoso Hebridean poet.  Veteran pamphleteers Mariscat are represented with ‘On Time’, by Donald MacKay.  Performance phenomenon Rachel McCrum is on the platform with ‘The Glassblower Dances’ from Stewed Rhubarb. Maggie Rabatski, Saltire nominee is in there with ‘Holding’ from New Voices Press in Glasgow.  ‘Nest’, by Tom Pow and Hugh Bryden is ready to fly.  Hansel Co-operative Press and Woodend Publishing complete the line up with ‘Reflections’, a collaboration between Yvonne Gray and artist John Cumming.

The importance of pamphlet publication can’t be understated – and is evidenced by the combination of new voices and big hitters.  To put thirty pages or less of poetry together is less of a commitment from all three parties – poet, publisher and reader – than grouping sixty four or more together, allowing more risk as well as nimbler production and distribution.

My first significant publication (okay, to date my only significant publication) was a pamphlet.  My next, who knows?  There is a book length collection of poems – I have long aspired to having one to my name.  But why?  In terms of form and content, the single author collection can appear quite an arbitrary concept.  Poetry exists at the pause, the silence – the syllable and the sound.  It exists in the word, the line and the image.  Beyond that, we’re imposing our perceptions and values on it – even at the level of stanzas and poems.

But the book length collection remains a yardstick – often a requirement for residencies and fellowships, and one that I can’t help or resist looking at when assessing fellow poets (or the progress of their careers).

Since I started this short post the winner of the Calum MacDonald Memorial Award has been announced – Rachel McCrum’s ‘The Glassblower Dances’ won the judges approval.  Stewed Rhubarb have gained practically instantaneous recognition and validation (of course, not instantaneous at all, but they’ve just started and these awards aren’t given lightly).

Which just goes to show how much is possible if you choose to make things happen.  It may not give them the comfort or the material boost of a booker shortlist – but it should be encouragement, and it is applause – richly deserved applause.  Weel don my jewels.  Keep at it.

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Back to Leith

Back to Leith

I’ve done many things in Leith.  A lot of them are unpublishable, many forgotten.  For years, it was a black hole, irresistibly drawing one or two weekends out of four across the M8 for debauchery and bon viveur.  You get an atmosphere as close to that in the West End of Glasgow as I’ve found.

Tonight, I’m going back to Leith, thanks to Goodnight Press – to do something I’ve done a lot of, but never (‘formally’) in Leith.  In fact it’s been too long since I did this anywhere – a reading.

Sandcastles

I can’t deny I’m excited.  Poetry has been scratched on walls, carved into the bark of trees, planted in gardens and printed with (and now without) ink in books and magazines since time immemorial.  But long before all that, literature and language – those labyrinths of meaning and feeling that at there best use words to express what can never be expressed through words – were spoken.  One of my favourite passtimes is watching audiences at poetry readings, the different looks of listening.  Some screw their eyes shut to focus on the words – others watch the reader intently.  Still more will gaze at the floor, the ceiling, catch the eyes of fellow audience members in a solidarity of appreciation. I know I employ all three listening techniques during the space of a fifteen minute reading.

The other good thing about readings is exposure to other writing and writers.  Theresa Munoz’s poems and mine have shared pages, most recently in New Writing Scotland 30 – but I haven’t met her or heard her read.  David Gaffney writes (amongst other things) flash fiction – a form I love to read, combining the eloquence, precision and economy of poetry with the power of story.  And all Pete McConville gives away in his bio is that he can speak audibly.  I’m sure I will be further enlightened.

This will be the thirteenth Caesura – a spoken word event which has been peppering the bars and cafes of Edinburgh with great writing well read since March last year.  Tonight, it rolls into Yellow Bench – a Polish cafe halfway down Leith Walk.  I’ll be reading some Lorca poems and a good few Williamsons. I’m confident I’ll come back all the richer for it.

 

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