Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Future

It's the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one and this song seems so apt for all kinds of reasons. Think of it as inevitable that it's ended up appearing on this blog:

It's been Leonard Cohen's year in many ways and this performance (from 1993) is stunning. For TV, he had to change "crack and anal sex" to "speed and careless sex" (you can tell he's a poet though - crack/anal, speed/careless - not just any words), but they let him sing everything else.

Gambia and the Fultons

Massive media publicity was extended to Vince Acors and Michelle Palmer who were said to have had sex on a Dubai beach, were arrested for indecent behaviour, and were sent home after appealing against a tough sentence. This couple had got drunk and one thing led to another. No doubt the hardliners wanted to make an example of them.

However, in the case of David and Fiona Fulton in the Gambia, publicity has been much lower key. The reason is no doubt because they did not have sex on a beach. They have been accused of ‘sedition’, which in this case means they wrote emails criticizing the Gambian government in some way. Also, they are ‘missionaries’, not necessarily in a traditional sense. Mr Fulton is a chaplain in the Gambian army. Mrs Fulton visits the terminally ill. Not sexy then, as far as the British press is concerned.

Their ‘crime’ of sending these emails (as yet, I have seen no information on what may have been in them. People who have received emails from them have testified only to some mild sarcasm. Transparency is not exactly something the Gambian junta have embraced) has resulted in a sentence of one year (one year!) in prison, with hard labour. Exactly what ‘hard labour’ means is unclear, but this sentence is ridiculous. Originally, the Fultons pleaded not guilty but changed their plea to guilty, presumably advised that, as they had little chance of a successful outcome, a guilty plea might have earned them a more lenient sentence.

All this has a background. The Gambian Government, which came to power following a coup, has cracked down on any hint of perceived dissent in the last few years, particularly following an unsuccessful coup attempt in 2006. A recent Amnesty International Report says that:

“the government’s disrespect for the rule of law and the judiciary makes the fight against impunity an uphill battle in Gambia. Lawyers are reluctant to take on human rights cases for fear of reprisals and families of victims are afraid to speak out. The media, for the most part, censors itself in the face of arrests, fines, threats and physical attacks on those accused of criticizing the government. All public protests have ceased.

“Fear now reigns in Gambia where any person considered to be a perceived enemy of the government is at risk of being arrested, tortured and even killed.”

The Fultons have 20 days in which to lodge an appeal. I’ve been trying to work out what to do, whom to send letters to etc, but I can’t find such a campaign, which seems strange. I guess polite letters to the Gambian President and the Gambian embassy wouldn’t go far wrong, but surely a coordinated campaign would go further than independent letters. Perhaps this will emerge over the next few days.

Edit: Well, here's what we can do. At the website of the Fultons' church, a Pentecostal Church in Bolton, there are email addresses to write to and guidelines on how best to do it, as well as background information. If you're not religious, ignore the call to prayer etc. This is a human rights issue, not a specifically religious matter.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Apocalypse in Poetry

My poem, Preparations for the Final Hours, is now up at qarrtsiluni, part of the ‘Journaling the Apocalypse’ issue – plenty worth reading in there.

You can read the poem and also hear me read it if you’re so inclined.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

You may be choosing to celebrate the traditional way, as I will be, at the midnight church service, followed by my homemade mulled wine and mince pies. On the other hand you might also choose to listen to an obscure classic from the John Peel show from the 1980s, a song I loved at the time and hadn’t heard in a couple of decades until today.

Have a great Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Zimbabwe Crisis

George Szirtes has a published a poem by John Eppel (with accompanying article by Mary Ndlovu), from Zimbabwe. It’s heartbreaking. I guess we can choose our own response to the crisis there – UNICEF, Christian Aid, and various organisations are taking donations to counter the cholera epidemic. But any chance of real change will only come with a change of leadership. The international community, especially South Africa, needs to act urgently.

Read This! Online

If you’re fed up preparing for Christmas and want a distraction, and if the possibilities for distraction include reading poems, you might consider checking out Read This! online. My poem, ‘Bananas’, is fourth down. Good also to see a poem there from fine young Indian writer, Aditi Machado.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Best Of 2008

Here’s my end of year list. Obviously, “best” means “best of what I’ve read” and there are millions of books I haven’t read. The lists under each heading are in alphabetical order. So for what it’s worth…

Best poetry collection published in 2008
Event – Judith Bishop
Me and the Dead – Katy Evans-Bush
Nigh-No-Place – Jen Hadfield
Zeppelins – Chris McCabe
Troy Town – Matt Merritt

Best poetry collection published in some other year
Stretch of Closures – Claire Crowther
Report from the Besieged City – Zbigniew Herbert
Yeah Yeah Yeah – Roddy Lumsden
Paradise Lost – John Milton
A Book of Lives – Edwin Morgan

Best Collected/Selected
Selected Poems (1977) – Zbigniew Herbert
Selected Poems – Michael Hofmann
Scales Dog – Alexander Hutchison
Without End – Adam Ragajewski
Collected Poems – James Schuyler

Best poem I've written this year

Probably ‘Derrida’, part 1 of a two-part poem called ‘Married Life in the Nineties’. Not that there’s been any great enthusiasm from magazine editors to publish it(!), but it will appear in my forthcoming collection.

Best poetry magazines
I’ve seen one issue each of Succour and Mimesis and both were very good.
The Dark Horse’s articles are of the highest quality.

Best poetry webzines
Horizon Review

Best poetry events
Every month at the Great Grog (As organiser, I wouldn’t want to single anyone out).
August Kleinzahler at the StAnza International Poetry Festival.
Frances Leviston and Ian McDonough at the Shore Poets in November.

Best non-poetry books
Black Sea – Neal Ascherson
Falling Man – Don DeLillo
Street Without a Name – Kapka Kassabova

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Like Sheep, But With A Shepherd

On a discussion board the other day, a well known small publisher related how, at a meeting of a major book publisher, the board categorised members of the public as different kinds of sheep.

It sounds rather contemptuous, but it's as well knowing how they think. You can imagine the categories – those who’ll come immediately and rush to the front, those who follow but keep veering off the path, those too stupid to follow who require extra attention, those who seem different but aren’t really, those who need to be chopped into cutlets… well, maybe not.

Is everyone a sheep? Is it possible to escape sheepdom? I fear that might not be an option. They will have a category to fit everyone somewhere.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Dangers In Reading Contemporary Poetry

Commenting on a recent post on this blog, ABJ wrote:

“…maybe it's easier to write original stuff if you're not surrounded by a zillion other poems by new writers and trying to conform to whatever 'craft' is being taught on creative writing courses in order to squeeze you into the Market Place? There's something rather utilitarian about that side of it (at its worst, I mean).”

I’m particularly interested in the first statement, the idea that originality is threatened when writers excessively read their contemporaries. More than that, Andy is suggesting that, in order to conform to the demands of the publishing industry, poets will use their contemporaries as a means to an end – they will write the kind of stuff that seems to be getting published.

Two things: as I understand him, Andy isn’t saying we shouldn’t read contemporary poetry at all. Any poet who advocates a complete boycott of new poetry is more or less telling you not to read his own work! Obviously, contemporary poets need a readership, and that readership will include other poets. But perhaps writers should be more choosy about what they read i.e. only read new collections which seem as if they might inform an existing direction a writer has chosen, independent of the marketplace, a direction informed by a deep, dark space within the writer’s soul (whether you believe in a ‘soul’ or not) and by great poets of the past.

Andy’s comments are directed only at poems by ‘new writers’. Originality never comes from ignorance, but takes off from where past originality paused. As Michael Schmidt so beautifully put it in his 2006 StAnza lecture:

“What we are includes, and depends upon, what we have been; what we have been can be changed not in pattern but in meaning by what we become. Life by the chronological clock versus life by values. Not to know what we are made of is not to know who we are, is possibly to fall victim to what we are made of. The poet who refuses to read other poetry for fear of being influenced has been influenced and will write without knowing how derivative the work is, for the ear is not innocent and memory is a faulty filter.”

However, I know some writers who feel that reading their contemporaries is vital. They feel that writing a poem is, in part, a conversation with other poems, and that includes other new poems. They also feel that getting a sense of what’s being published will indicate to them the kind of material readers want. They write for a perceived audience, not just for themselves.

But perhaps a poet has to hope for an audience, in vain if need be, rather than write for preconceptions – that’s if they want to remain true to whatever spark caused them to write in the first place. Certainly, what marked out the great writers discussed by Michael Hamburger in The Truth of Poetry was their singularity of vision. None of them wrote for a marketplace (although most wanted to build a readership, but on their own terms). In some cases, the marketplace eventually caught up with them (and in other cases has still do so). But Eliot, Pessoa, Baudelaire, Stevens etc – what they did is beyond the reach of most mortals! Isn’t there a sense that most writers have to be content with far lesser achievements? Or is that just defeatist talk?

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Original Hallelujah...

...or, at least, a (very good) performance of part of it by Leonard Cohen.

We'll return to poetry tomorrow, I promise. Although there is a fair bit of poetry in these lyrics.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

X Factor 2008 - The Winner Is...

Alexandra! And very well deserved too.

I don't know how she got through her reprise of Hallelujah. She was so emotional and could hardly speak. Her vocals disappeared at the end of verse 1, but she got it back and held it together - more or less. It was very moving to watch.

That open emotion is great in so many ways, but I get the feeling that she is a very nice and also a very vulnerable young woman. I hope people look after her well. She demonstrated tonight that she has the ability to move an audience deeply with her voice. That's what marked her out from the other contestants throughout the series, but especially in the final.

I'm honestly still reeling from her first performance of Hallelujah - it was just staggering. I am a big Leonard Cohen fan. He is one of my favourite songwriter/performers and I think Alexandra did him proud tonight.

And here it is:

I was a bit concerned that it might not sound so good this morning, after all the excitement had died down, but no, it's really good stuff.

And for good measure, here's her performance with Beyoncé:

X Factor Final 2008 - As It Happens

OK, I'll keep updating my thoughts on the Final, as it happens, during commercial breaks. It's just about to start. I'll go for Alexandra to win - she's not brilliant but she's easily the best. I've a feeling JLS might win, which would be unfortunate, as they are very ordinary. Eoghan is hopeless but a combination of the granny vote and the 'High School Musical' vote might hand it to him - that would be a travesty.

**That's the first round over - three Christmas songs. Eoghan sleepwalked his way through 'I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday'. JLS sang a fairly tight version of 'Last Christmas'. Alexandra hit the emotional centre with 'Silent Night'. On those performances, Alexandra is just ahead of JLS with Eoghan a poor third. All that talk of fame, adulation and being superstars is worrying though - is that the main reason they want to win? Or does it mean much more than that to them?

**Second round: duets - Eoghan sang with Boyzone and suffered by comparison. Unfortunately Boyzone, despite being a typical boyband, can actually sing. JLS sang with Westlife and, to my ear, sang better than their famous counterparts. Golden rule: in the duets round, alaways pick a band you can outshine. If Alexandra is about to sing with Beyoncé, she's going to have to be very good... Well, she was good, but Beyoncé sang much too well! She did Alexandra no favours there, I'm afraid - unless people vote for someone because they like the co-star. Maybe. Alexandra got very, very emotional, which might pick up votes. Having said all this, she sang very well. However, Beyoncé was something else - she certainly has the 'X Factor'! I still think Alexandra ought to be miles ahead.

**Third round: personal choice - Eoghan sang a High School Musical song. Shrewd choice, of course, and will pick up votes. But he doesn't deserve to. His voice has no energy or passion, which is why they have to fill the stage with dancers every time he sings. Surely Eoghan must go. JLS sang a boyband song (can't even remember which one - Take That?). It was OK. Tight, but ordinary. Alexandra sang a ballad and again cranked up the emotion to just the right degree.

**Really, Alexandra is way out in front. She won every round. Eoghan flopped every round. JLS seemed OK. I predict a final two of Alexandra and JLS. It goes without saying that Alexandra will do a much better version of Hallelujah than JLS. So a foregone conclusion? Not really. After all, the UK public vote the winner. It could go any way. There's an hour's intermission and then we're back.

**What happened to the adverts?! Anyway, a lot has happened. Eoghan got voted out and was gracious in defeat, to his credit. Then both JLS and Alexandra performed Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. In my opinion, to sing that song successfully, you need either Cohen's gravitas or Jeff Buckley's passion. JLS's vocal performance was adequate, but they lacked both those qualities. They were a boyband trying to sing an adult song. I thought Alexandra would sing this well but, I have to admit, she way surpassed my expectations. It was stunning! Really astonishing version. Gravitas and passion in abundance. She sang it as if she was inhabiting the song. She must win after that. If she doesn't, there's something seriously wrong.

**About five minutes from the announcement of the winner now. Can you feel the tension? Before the show began, I wanted Alexandra to win. After her performance of Hallelujah, I need her to win.

**And she did win. It was a storming finish too. My commentary on this year’s X Factor continues and ends in a new post (including two of Alexandra's best performances). It’s been fun.

Word of Mouth Café - December 2008

I went yesterday evening to Edinburgh’s Word of Mouth Café in Albert Street. It’s an open-mic event for music and poetry, and I didn’t know what to expect. The first thing to say is that it’s a great place, intimate and atmospheric. The MC, Mira, seemed really nice, as did most people in the audience. Charlotte Runcie was there and told me that the home-baking was terrific.

Unfortunately, the event was marred (but not ruined, as I’ll explain) by two dimwits who can go by the names of 'Tom Waits Wanabee' (TWW) and 'Drunk Moron' (DM). TWW was on first with a couple of musicians. He wore a hat, just like Tom Waits, and sometimes he attempted to reproduce a throaty growl, but to little effect. The songs were unadventurous 12-bar-blues of a kind you might find in any pub populated by six paralytic, leather-jacketed, fifty-something, lonely men after eleven at night on any weekend. It was like Status Quo might have sounded before they learned to sing or play their instruments.

I was on next. TWW and DM obviously didn’t appreciate the switch to poetry and decided to disrupt my reading by shouting out stuff and talking loudly while I read. The audience would say, “Shhhhh! Shut up!” which only seemed to encourage them. To be honest, I’m more than a little annoyed at myself for allowing it to rattle me and I didn’t read very well although, in my defence, it wasn’t easy. I had planned to read two poems, but read a third just to piss them off – that probably wasn’t a good idea either… My set-list (although I might as well have been reading a telephone directory) was:

1. Hangover Hotel
2. The Deconstruction Industry
3. Taxi

After my set, Mira asked them to stay quiet during performances. TWW (or perhaps DM) shouted at her that she was behaving like a schoolteacher. Actually, that’s the first sensible thing he said all night, likening himself, I guess, to an eight-year-old spoiled child.

The thing was, there were some terrific acts to come. A band called All at Sea were brilliant. I even bought their CD. I picked up some Smiths influences, a touch of Pulp – great songwriting. An un-named duo comprising of a bass-player and a woman singer – something between Ella Fitzgerald and Mary Margaret O’Hara – were also superb.

Drunk Moron started getting annoyed at this guy who refused to shake his hand, not unreasonably protesting, “I’m not your friend!” DM became verbally abusive. Luckily, before Charlotte went on, Mira helpfully ejected DM, explaining that this was one advantage of being a woman. She could eject drunk and disorderly men from the premises without it seeming like an act of aggression. Very true. Charlotte read some excellent poems and read them very well.

So I’d recommend this place as a café and as a venue. It was just unfortunate that TWW and DM were around. TWW sat down at my table and started asking those present whether, if they were trapped in a room with a red-hot floor, they would step on their daughter to save themselves. What insight he had into this moral dilemma was never made clear. When given answers, mainly from women (e.g. “No, that’s horrible”) he tried to intimidate them by saying, “What do you mean, “horrible”? That’s no answer. Give me a proper answer!” – that “Are you talking to me or chewing a brick?” routine, in which any answer you give is going to be the wrong one. One woman refused to say yes or no, and he became angry. I got angry too and decided it was time to have a go at him:

TWW: Give me an answer. You can’t refuse to answer!
Me: Why should she answer? Why should you control this conversation and tell people what they can and can’t do? They can do anything they want.
TWW: (for the first time, taken aback, and discomforted – yeah, triumph at last!) eh…um…by the way, your poetry is really bad.
Me: Not that you listened to any of it! In any case, your music was total crap. It’s the most boring stuff I’ve heard in ages.
Nearby Woman: Yes, it’s like you were trying to be Tom Waits and couldn’t get anywhere near (or words to that effect).

The conversation swiftly turned to politics and TWW asked people to name their favourite politician. No one had a ready answer for that one. Then someone said ‘Nelson Mandela’. TWW replied, “No. no. I’ll tell you who my favourite politician is – Robert Mugabe!”

It took a few seconds for everyone to register that TWW was, in fact, being absolutely serious. It wasn’t irony or a joke. He really believed Robert Mugabe was a good guy. Coming from TWW, that makes prefect sense. Of course, he would admire Robert Mugabe.

I had to leave before Anita Govan and Fiona Lindsey performed their poetry sets – a shame, as I like Fiona and Anita, but I had to get home. I’ll be back to the Word of Mouth though. I want to stress that, despite how this article might sound, it is a great place with some really interesting poetry and music going on. Definitely a venue well worth supporting. Thanks to Mira and everyone else for their kind comments on my set (!) and for the delicious mince pie.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Who Will Win The X-Factor 2008?

Tomorrow is the X-Factor final. Who will win? I think it’s between JLS and Alexandra.

(***See my live commentary on the X-Factor Final here, as it happens.***)

I don’t much like JLS. They are a tedious singing group and nothing stands out with them. Their main singer has a decent voice but, beyond that, they make me shrug. See for yourselves:

Then there’s Alexandra, by miles the best singer in the competition. However, what she does isn’t really all that interesting. She is too often risk-free. When she lets herself go, she can turn it up a notch, but she doesn't always do that. As you can also see:

The third contestant is Eoghan. I can’t bring myself to actually include one of his videos on this blog, but here’s a link to one if you’re feeling particularly masochistic. He might win with the ‘granny vote’, I suppose. That must be a significant vote on this show.

I reckon that the X-Factor struck gold with Leona Lewis a couple of years ago, but it's never got anyone as good as her before or since. The show has run into a cul-de-sac, the way anything does when it peaks too early. No rearrangement of judges or presenters is going to do the trick. Maybe they need a new approach – an indie X-Factor or singer-songwriter X-Factor. A poetry X-Factor?? Maybe then they’d find something to really wake me up again.

My vote would be with Alexandra if I could be bothered picking up the phone. The usual annual running live commentary will take place on this blog tomorrow evening…

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Scottish Poetry Pamphlet Party and Fair 2008

Yesterday evening, I went to Edinburgh’s annual Poetry Pamphlet Party and Fair. It’s now in its seventh year and has grown a great deal in that time. You could browse pamphlets, most self-published (many of the established pamphlet publishers were absent this year), and buy whatever appealed to you. Every so often, there was a series of readers, each reading one poem.

It’s a good event for hanging around and chatting, or ‘networking’ as someone put it to me. There’s free wine, crisps and mince pies. I met Hugh McMillan in person for the first time. I’m very impressed by the look of his new pamphlet of poems and etchings (the etchings are by Tom Bryant). However, I have stopped buying poetry books until January at least. Maybe then…

Tony Lawrence gave me a copy of his pamphlet, Quantum Gravitas: A New Theory of Poetry. It’s a mathematical approach, an attempt to capture the essence of poetry by various formulae e.g. Δp = W – ΣPi where W represents a whole, Pi a part, p represents poetry, and Δ and Σ signify ‘change in the amount of’ and ‘sum of’ respectively. In other words, the poetic content of a poem can be defined as the amount by which the whole exceeds the sum of its parts – and this is just from the first of twelve pages. I’m not all that sure how serious Tony is, but going to the event was worth it for getting this alone.

Some decent poems were read. Nothing really blew me away from writers whose work I hadn’t been familiar with before, but maybe that’s only to be expected. If there are any brilliant unknown geniuses out there, they are still hiding in their garrets. However, some fairly new poets got the chance to read one of their poems in public and the Fair did afford an opportunity for discovering some diverse material.

I’ve just found Colin Will’s take on the Pamphlet Fair. Colin is positive about the event, but asks why there so many poets and publishers there and so few members of the general public. Also why so few young people – both good questions!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Great Poets of the 20th Century

In his article in Magma, The New Imagination, Lauire Smith argues that Britain produced no great 20th century poets. He claims seven American and Irish poets as “indisputably” great, and suggests several UK poets who come close.

I think all his lists are very open to dispute. I’ve written about it at the Magma blog. If you’ve any comments to make, please get stuck in there. I’m going to write another piece addressing some of the main issues in Laurie Smith’s article. It’s a well written and provocative essay, I think, but that doesn’t mean I agree with him (although I do agree with some of it).

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


I’ve spent the last few days in the Sick Kids’ Hospital. Before anyone gets concerned, my daughter is OK. On Sunday evening she got a high temperature and was very sick. It was the cold hands and feet and the beginnings of a rash that was most concerning for us and the hospital agreed, sending an ambulance to take her to hospital.

The doctors did tests and ruled out meningitis, to our relief, but wanted to keep her in anyway as she was close to clinical dehydration and nothing was staying down. They put her on a drip to keep her hydrated. I stayed with her through the night and my wife stayed last night. She seemed a bit better yesterday evening and hadn’t been sick since Monday morning. Once she starts to eat, I think the hospital will allow us to take her home. The plan was for her to have a slice of toast this morning. I’m just going in there. I’ll find out the current situation, but I’ve a feeling we’ll all be back home by the afternoon.

***Update*** We're all home now and my daughter is much better. I noticed the Daily Mail's front page headline today was about how crap the Scottish National Health Service is - but it seemed pretty impressive to me over the last few days.

Friday, December 05, 2008

HappenStance Christmas Party, Launch and Blog

Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be at the HappenStance Christmas Party and Launch of new pamphlets by Paula Jennings, Frances Corkey Thompson and Anne Caldwell. It’s at 3pm-5pm at the Mai Thai Bar restaurant in Crichton’s Close (off the Canongate), Edinburgh. I’ve read Paula’s book and thought it was very good indeed. I haven’t read the other two yet.

HappenStance now has a blog. In fact it’s almost more like an anti-blog. I don’t mean it’s against blogs or anything like that. More, it’s an anti-blog in the same way as people write sestinas which are really anti-sestinas – they use the form to write a good poem which is, in part, a comment on the form’s limitations.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Editing Magma

Jacqueline Saphra talks about the experience of helping to edit Magma, a magazine that gets thousands of submissions for every issue, on top of a job, a family, preparing her own collection, and various other literary commitments.

Would she do it again? There’s only one answer to that.

Fleet Foxes

My choice for Song of the Year, ‘He Doesn’t Know Why,’ by Fleet Foxes. I guess it’s possible that someone might release a better song before the end of 2008, but I don’t think so. This is brilliant stuff. Who have these guys been listening to? Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys? Love? Simon & Garfunkel? Among contemporaries, maybe Belle & Sebastian? Anglican choirs singing Evensong?

The Fleet Foxes’ eponymous album is also one of the best releases of 2008.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The State Of Scottish Poetry 1 - The New Generation?

It’s about 15 years since a Scottish poet won an Eric Gregory Award (not including Frances Leviston who left Scotland at the age of 9) – awards made to poets under 30 who show particular promise. Before anyone assumes this is due to southern prejudice, Scottish poets won the award regularly in the years beforehand. The question of why so few young poets of talent have emerged in the past while shouldn’t be talked away. I’m told by one Scottish-based publisher that most of the strongest submissions are coming from outside Scotland. Major UK publishers seem to be queuing up to publish collection debuts by poets under 30 (some, I think, have rushed into it a few years too early, but that’s another matter), but none of the poets are Scottish. Major Scottish publisher, Polygon, has started to publish poetry again. Its first book was by Sam Meekings, a young English poet. Its second will be by an English woman, albeit one currently based in Scotland.

It could be that these things come in waves and that the Gregory Award recipients from the seventies, eighties and early nineties represented a peculiarly talented generation of Scottish poets who fed off one another. A few young women in their late teens and twenties are currently emerging who show promise and it’s vital that such promise is nurtured. Where the young Scottish male poets are is another matter! Perhaps it’s also worth asking where a new generation of poetry readers is likely to come from.

The emergence in Glasgow in the last couple of years of movements such as St Mungo’s Mirrorball and Vital Synz (their website seems to have disappeared), who offer mentorships and high-level workshops with skilled poets and editors, as well as programmes of live readings, might eventually lead to new, young poets breaking through. I don’t see anything on the same level happening in any other city or town. A few years ago, almost nothing was happening in Glasgow, but it’s now at the centre of things. Edinburgh’s complacency may well be its downfall.

This is the first post in an occasional series. I’ll take a look at
other aspects of the Scottish poetry scene every so often over the next few months.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Should Frances Leviston Visit Scandinavia? - Shore Poets Report

As I had hoped, I did make it to the Shore Poets last night. I braved the sub-zero chill to make the trip into town and was glad I did.

I had come straight from work and, unfortunately, I missed the first poet, Susan Tichy. I was told many of her poems were about Vietnam. Years after the war, she and her partner (a Vietnam veteran) had visited places where he had fought. The poems were political without any attempt to leaven the politics by symbolism or metaphor the way so many poets do. She also read poems of grief and loss. The word that kept recurring, as people described her reading, was “sombre,” but most also found it interesting.

Next up was Ian McDonough. He was on terrific form – just the right mix of humour, irony, and serious content. His poems on the unpromising subject of physics and those from his latest collection, The Vanishing Hitchhiker, were excellent. I meant to pick up a copy but forgot. However, I will do so at the earliest opportunity. I’ve heard Ian read several times and he’s always good, but this was the best ever.

Frances Leviston kept up the standard. She read mainly from Public Dream. Her chat between-poems worked well and she seemed very much more relaxed than when I’d seen her about 18 months before at the StAnza Festival. A new poem – about her aunt (I think) who kept countless jars of unused, home-made damson jam in her basement – contained an image of “the frozen heads of millionaires” (I can’t be sure I’ve quoted that correctly) and these moments, when poems went beyond where they seemed to be going, showed me why she’s regarded as such a talent.

Before her final poem, Scandinavia, she recounted a story of reading the poem, which imagines what Scandinavia might be like. Afterwards a Norwegian woman had approached her, telling her she should come and visit her in Norway. Frances felt she could never now visit Scandinavia or it would spoil the poem. But I don’t know. Should she go or not? It’s a bit like those tabloid or online opinion polls where you get asked questions like, ‘Should Charles marry Diana?’ or ‘Did Madonna deserve Guy Ritchie?’ – you’re asked to comment on things you have no real knowledge of at all. I think she should go – she might even get a ‘Scandinavia II’ poem out of it (maybe even a III and IV – who knows?) to complement her current one.

So, probably the best Shore Poets reading of 2008.