Sunday, May 31, 2009

June Taster

On June 14th from 8pm-10.15pm at the Jekyll & Hyde pub in Edinburgh (112 Hanover Street), 'Poetry at the...' will feature Allan Crosbie, Katy Evans-Bush, Andrew Philip and 'Zorras'. I'll be doing my MC thing. It should be a terrific evening and I'm hoping for a good crowd. You can now read a poem and bio from Andrew Philip at the 'Poetry at the...' site.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Reviewing Poetry At Magma

On the Magma blog, my post on reviewing poetry is up. It joins in with an existing conversation – negative reviews, anonymous reviews, how to review a first collection, how to review (or not review) a duff book by a famous poet… It’s all there waiting for your comments and opinions.

Salt TV

UK viewers can tune into BBC2 tonight at 11pm for Newsnight Review. Salt director, Chris Hamilton-Emery, and poet, Chris McCabe, will be talking about poetry, Salt and the Just One Book campaign.

The De-Cabbage Yourself Experience!

From Monday, I’ll be setting off on my virtual Cyclone Blog Tour, ‘The De-Cabbage Yourself Experience!’ (unless someone talks me out of using that title by the end of this weekend). Basically, I’ll be visiting a blog every Monday through summer, with a fortnight’s break in July, and answering a few questions at each.

It’s all just a crude capitalist plot to sell copies of that evil book, The Opposite of Cabbage, which currently has sold out at Perhaps the same person has been buying up all the copies and burning them as fast as Salt can make them. If you are that person, please keep up the good work.

Tour dates are below. I might add one further date at some point, but perhaps not. Please join me, for certain, at Very Like a Whale on Monday.

1. 1st June – Nic Sebastian: Very Like a Whale (q 1-5)

2. 8th June – Marion McCready: Poetry in Progress

3. 15th June – Ivy Alvarez: Dumbfoundry

4. 22nd JuneNicolette Bethel: Scavella’s Blogsphere

5. 29th JuneClaire Askew: One Night Stanzas

6. 16th July (Thursday) - Bernardine Evaristo: Bernardine Evaristo’s Blog

7. 20th July Anna Dickie: My (Elastic) Gap Year

8. 27th July - Barbara Smith: Barbara’s Bleeuugh!

9. 3rd August – Michelle McGrane: Peony Moon

10. 10th August - Nic Sebastian: Very Like a Whale (q-6-10)

11. 17th August – Jee Leong Koh: Song of a Reformed Headhunter

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Life In The Cyclone

I’m racing from one thing to another today, but have managed to do quite a lot. All the same, things are hectic. I’ll be out and about this afternoon doing work-related stuff. I prepared work stuff this morning too. Too much work! Yesterday evening, after a meeting, I wrote a piece about reviewing poetry, which will soon appear on the Magma blog. I’ll let you know when it’s up.

Matt Merritt has written an excellent review of Andrew Philip’s The Ambulance Box.

I have a few readings now over summer, mainly in August, In Edinburgh. I’m going to be reading in London on Monday 29th June with Andrew Philip and Katy Evans-Bush and one or two others still to be confirmed (in part because we haven’t asked them yet!). The venue is still to be confirmed too, but it will be good. Hope you Londoners can keep the date free and come along to this, effectively the London launch for us Scottish poets.

And I've also been preparing a Cyclone tour for The Opposite of Cabbage, which is almost all ready. In fact, it's due to start next Monday over at Very Like a Whale. More about this soon but, for now, I must go...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Disintegrating Poems

A few weeks ago, Helena Nelson sent me a link telling the story of a poetry reading. This, however, was no ordinary reading. The idea is that, without telling the audience the nature of the event, you write a batch of poems over a few months – the very best you can do, nothing dashed off or obviously ephemeral. Once you’ve read them, you tear them all up. No other copies can exist and you have to delete them from your hard drive before performing them. In other words, the performance is a one-off experience, never to be repeated. You can read about it in more detail here.

I’m not sure I could do this. In fact, I’m fairly sure I couldn’t. I could dash off a few competent enough poems, read them and then burn them. No problem. But good stuff – I don’t think so. Good stuff is rare and takes too much time for me to contemplate destroying it. Now I know that’s the point – the very nature of the one-off, never to be repeated performance is its singularity. The audience go home knowing they’ve seen and heard something rare. If it’s good enough, they will feel a sense of privilege. They will remember being there on that night for a long time to come. But shouldn’t any performance be like that? A poem read on one night will be different from the same poem being read by the same poet on another night. Also, I expect some people will go home feeling a sense of loss, even outrage, even if just for one poem, or a few lines they can no longer exactly remember. I guess this kind of event may help us reconsider why poetry is important, especially if we often begin to feel that it isn’t really.

Let’s imagine a similar event, this time with a line-up of excellent poets reading one poem each, which they all then tear up. Memorable, yes. And at least the load is shared. But could I tear up even one really good poem?

Then today I read this at Don Share’s blog, a quote from Virginia Woolf on the active life of an average book (not long) – “Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months time?” There would be more space in my house as a result. But I resist this too. The big-sellers which need second editions might not be the best books. My shelves could end up filled with second-division stuff while the great poems disintegrate. ‘Buy a Salt book’, suggests Don’s Jekyll to Virgina Woolf’s Hyde. I think I’d go along with that.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Scott Rennie Case

I took a bus into Edinburgh’s city centre and managed to get in to see the debate over Scott Rennie live at the General Assembly. The public gallery and the video-link hall were both packed full. The debate lasted four hours and was (mostly) of a high standard, I thought. It was a court case carried out without public broadcasting cameras, so I don't want to go into detail on speeches. Kirk votes to back gay minister, says the BBC headline – and it did, by 326 votes to 267. Scott Rennie’s call to Queen’s Cross Church and the ratification by Aberdeen Presbytery have been upheld. I don’t know Scott, but I’m glad for him and wish him well. It was the right decision.

But the motion passed was more complex than the BBC make it appear. The motion recognised that the church has not yet expressed a clear-cut view on matters of homosexuality and ministry, and the decision on Scott Rennie was expressly stated not to prejudice that debate, which was originally to take place afterwards tonight in terms of the motion issued by Lochcarron & Skye Presbytery:

“That this Church shall not accept for training, ordain, admit, readmit, induct or introduce to any ministry of the Church anyone involved in a sexual relationship outside of marriage between a man and a woman.”

However, due to the initial court case taking so long, it’s been postponed until Monday at 4pm.

In other words, the Church of Scotland General Assembly has decided that, under existing church legislation, the Presbytery of Aberdeen acted properly in upholding Scott Rennie’s call to Queen’s Cross Church. However, if the Overture issued by Lochcarron & Skye is passed on Monday, people engaged in sexual relationships, outside marriage between a man and woman, won’t be allowed to take up office as church ministers (in the future). So more or less everything is still at stake.

Live From The General Assembly

Those interested in following the Scott Rennie case at the Church of Scotland General Assembly (whether he, as a practising gay man, can retain his post as minister of Queen’s Cross Church) and the subsequent debate on sexuality, can watch it live from just after 6.30pm tonight. Whether it will be an edifying spectacle remains to be seen…

The BBC Report at the link states that "more than 400 Kirk ministers and almost 5,000 Church of Scotland members are said to have signed an online petition opposing the appointment." That 400 includes many retired ministers, and the 5,000 members belong to a Church denomination of over 600,000 members.


Hmmm. I just read in today's Scotsman newspaper that the Church has chosen not to show this particular debate on its live stream because "the Assembly is meeting as a court." Well it's true that, in Scotland, the proceedings of a court can't be televised. I can see the reasons why court proceedings ought to be held in private.


Latest news from the Church of Scotland website:

"Referred case: On Saturday evening the General Assembly will be exercising judicial functions, and like other British courts do not broadcast these publicly. Therefore there will be no webcast or Twitter updates of the Referred Case.

The webcast broadcast will re-commence with the beginning of the Overture from the Presbytery of Lochcarron-Skye. The timing of this event will be dependant on the length of the preceding material. We will annouce the re-starting of the webcast on Twitter on the General Assembly Updates page."

I guess this might read like double-dutch. Basically, the 'referred case' is a complaint made by certain individuals from the Presbytery of Aberdeen who feel that the Presbytery acted improperly in allowing Queens Cross Church to call Scott Rennie to be their minister. This is the court case, and will be in private.

However, the Lochcarron-Skye overture will debate the issue of whether churches will be able to call ministers in a gay relationship (or indeed in any sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage). The overture states:

“That this Church shall not accept for training, ordain, admit, readmit, induct or introduce to any ministry of the Church anyone involved in a sexual relationship outside of marriage between a man and a woman.”

That debate will be live on the stream, using the link above. I suspect the outcome will be to delay having to make a decision for a few years...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Paint A Vulgar Picture

Happy 50th Birthday, Morrissey!

(the movie is Ray C. Smallwood's 'Camille' (1921)

Just One Book

The Bookseller reports on Salt’s, ‘Just One Book’ campaign. Really fantastic to hear of such a response from people all over the world, even if there is a long way to go yet before they're out of trouble.

And here’s Salt’s spoof on the polar bear video, with a serious message. To my surprise, The Opposite of Cabbage makes an appearance at 0.18.

Congratulations To HappenStance Press

Terrific news yesterday that HappenStance Press have been shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards for the UK’s Best Pamphlet Publisher, 2009. It’s long overdue recognition for the great work Helena Nelson has been doing, work I have benefited from personally, both by having The Clown of Natural Sorrow published in 2005 and by Nell’s excellent editorial work on it. I am rooting for HappenStance all the way, although the other nominees (Templar, tall-lighthouse, and Oystercatcher) are very strong publishing houses too. They all deserve an award!

There is also a Best Pamphlet Award and the shortlist there is:

Bone Song by Polly Atkin (Aussteiger Publications)
The Shortest Days by Elizabeth Burns (Galdragon Press)
That Water Speaks in Tongues by Siobhán Campbell (Templar Poetry)
Milk by Sarah Jackson (Pighog)
whichever music by Kate Potts (tall-lighthouse)
quot by seekers of lice (self-published)

Again, looks like a very strong shortlist. I'm pleased to see Sarah Jackson's name in there. I interviewed her on the Magma blog not long ago and had enjoyed her work as featured poet in issue 42. To state the obvious, it’s interesting that all the nominees are women (I don’t know whether ‘seekers of lice’ is a man or woman, so women might have 5/6 places). What happened to the men? Try harder next year, gents! One Scottish writer (Elizabeth Burns), one Irish (Siobhán Campbell), and four English. A variety of ages and styles. It does show the range and quality present in pamphlet format these days.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hymns To Our Lady Of Chartres.

Thanks to Dan Prichard’s Wooden Spoon blog, I found a new Geoffrey Hill poem or, rather, a new version of a poem he wrote in 1984. The original was published in three sections. It now has seven - Seven Hymns to our Lady of Chartres (opens as a .pdf file). It’s a brilliant poem.

At a more mundane level, you can read three new poems by me (‘Radio Alarm’, ‘Apartment’ and ‘Exchange’) in the new issue of Succour, issue 9 (in print only). It’s an excellent magazine featuring prose, poetry and art. Arlene Ang has six poems in the same issue, and there’s plenty more good stuff.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Future Of Salt

Bad news from Salt. Due to the economic downturn, the business has struggled. It looked, at first, like Salt would have to cancel all its remaining scheduled publications for 2009, although there is talk that a few of those books may now be published.

Salt isn’t bankrupt. It’s still trading and all the books you see on its website (including my own collection) are still available and will continue to be available. But it’s going to have to operate on a much smaller scale in the future. It’s a real tragedy for Chris and Jen who have put so much of their time, energy and passion into the business. The other main loss here is for British poetry – for poets and readers. With a bit of luck, Salt might have fully established itself as a major force in UK poetry publishing, financially stable, much like Bloodaxe did a couple of decades ago, and it’s a force that is much needed. So much that’s been exciting in poetry in the last few years has been brought to view though Salt. What it has achieved has been considerable, but it’s now going to have to cut back.

Whatever happens, it shows how precarious life is for small publishers at the moment, particularly those who are attempting to produce quality literature. Even if, like Salt, you win loads of prizes and are short-listed for many top awards, even if you are recognised as one of the best publishers of poetry and short stories out there, even if you have the best website and a furious work ethic, you’re still competing with a culture that feeds us with celebrity cookbooks and kiss-and-tell biographies on its shop windows, and ‘3 for 2’ special-offer novels, which account for a massive percentage of UK book sales, are its most visible promotion.

Anyway, if you’re wondering what to read next, you could do far worse than go to the Salt website and choose a couple of titles. There’s almost no chance you’ll be disappointed.


Here's a message from Chris Hamilton-Emery, Salt's director:

"Here's how you can help us to save Salt.


1. Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store and help us keep going.

Salt UK and International Store

Salt USA Store

2. Share this note on your Facebook and MySpace profile [and on your blogs]. Tell your friends. If we can spread the word about our cash crisis, we can hopefully find more sales and save our literary publishing. Remember it's just one book, that's all it takes to save us. Please do it now.

With my best wishes to everyone

Monday, May 18, 2009

Matt Merritt Reviews 'The Opposite Of Cabbage'

Very nice of Matt Merritt to review The Opposite of Cabbage so warmly. I couldn’t really ask for a more positive or more interesting review. Look out for his review of Andy's The Ambulance Box later in the week.

Thank you, Matt!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Eurovision Highlights

For those of you who missed it...

Here are a few choice selections from Eurovision 2009, courtesy of the BBC.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Eurovision 2009 - Who Will Win?

(...continued from this post)

So who is going to win? Well, irrespective of my particular slant on the songs, I'd say the likely winner will be among: Israel, Iceland, Greece (I know, it was awful, but...), Malta (ditto), Turkey - and (and this is a big 'and') the Eastern European nations. It depends how they carve up their votes. Their songs were all terrible, but that means nothing. One of them might sneak it.

As for the UK, if Jade had been singing for the Ukraine, Russia or even Azerbaijan, it would probably win. As it is, the UK will have to be content with a position in the lower regions. It is a boring, 'safe' entry.

My favourite song? Probably Israel. My least favourite? Probably Malta. No, Germany. There were also plenty of songs so nondescript, they had no effect on me at all. Not really a classic Eurovision. Few moments of real comedy. Few novelty acts bordering on genius (remember France last year? It's the only song I remember). Anyway, to the votes...


A quarter of the way through the voting and Norway are miles ahead. Looks like they will win for sure. I can't really understand what people like about that song. I can't stand it! Anyway, the UK are currently in 4th place, which is the best we've done for a long time. Still a long way to go though and it's very close in the battle for 2nd and 3rd place.


Still some votes to come in. But Norway have won. They have scored more points than anyone in the history of Eurovision. It beats me! The UK are currently 4th. The voting has been much less political than in recent years, so it appear the new voting system has worked. Now all we need for future years is more daft comedy and at least a few good songs.


It's all over. Norway have won by a landslide. Second place were Iceland, 3rd Azerbaijan, and 4th Turkey, who sent the UK into 5th position on the last vote. I can't think of anything either profound or funny to say at this point, so I'll shut up. Maybe something will occur to me tomorrow. I have a bottle of Nastro Azzurro waiting in the fridge, a reward for watching the whole thing, which I feel I deserve.

Eurovision 2009 - As It Happens

Eurovision 2009 is about to start. I'll update this post periodically throughout the evening. France have had the best song by miles for the past two years, neither of which got anywhere at all (last year's entry was the fantastic Sebastien Tellier’s ‘Divine’). I haven't heard the French effort for this year yet. The UK's song is quite strong (in Eurovision terms). There is a new voting system designed to combat political and tactical voting, but I'm doubtful it will make any difference. Anyway, here we go...


OK, after 5 songs, Israel should be way out in the lead. A catchy song. Croatia lead in the bombastic nonsense award. Sweden's operatic disco thing was simply ridiculous. France may as well forget it for this year.


On the 10 song mark: Greece may win the award for Stupidest Dance and Male Ego, but there's still time. Armenia have taken over in pole position for the Bombast award. The host nation, Russia, have a truly awful entry. My daughter (7) reckons Iceland are the best, but I still prefer Isarel.


Azerbaijan got a standing ovation. Who knows why? Bosnia & Herzegovina were hilariously bad but, unfortunately, not so bad that it was good, if you know what I mean. Moldova have won the Stupidest Dance award. Surely no one can beat that. Malta were crap. A poor section, this one. Thanks, ABJ, for the entertainment in the comments box, by the way!


Now at song 20. What were Germany doing? A woman came on and drew a whip, but for no apparent reason. Weird. Terrible song too. Turkey will win the Shakira Impersonation Award. Must be in with a chance of the real prize too. What was going on with Albania? There was a guy dressed in a weird green mask/costume and also men who looked like they'd got lost on their way to a circus peformance. Awful song. But they win the Unintentionally Funny Performance Award. Norway may be the favourite but it's the kind of song that would drive me crazy if I heard it more than once.


That's all 25 songs performed. Someone in Ukraine must have decided that it would be a great idea for their backing singers to appear as semi-clad Roman soldiers. I think they might regret that decision. Jade did her stuff for the UK, with Andrew Lloyd-Webber on piano. It's the kind of ballad that might feature in an X-Factor final. Perhaps that's the psychology. People feel they have to pick up the phone and vote. Nothing much else of note. Finland were disappointing. For some reason, my daughter liked the Spanish entry. I think that might be because she likes Spain, rather than the song as such.

continued in this post…

Poetry And Mediocrity

This brief post by Don Share, on mediocrity, is discomforting, to ay the least, although it also made me laugh.

I have tried shooting at targets (yes, seriously, I once learned how to use a gun!) and I have fired arrows at targets. As a teenager, I used to play darts for hours at a time in my bedroom and dreamed of becoming world champion. I wasn’t much good. I improved with practice and I enjoyed myself, but I never progressed beyond a very mediocre level.

At chess, I became a strong club player. I was pretty good. But I could have practiced for years on end and never become one of the best.

So I can relate to the photo at the link all the way. It’s true. However, when applied to poetry, things are more complex. You can see your own mediocrity on a target. The evidence is staring you in the face. In a chess game, you lose to stronger players. It's easy to keep track of how you're doing. With a poem, it’s harder to see. Other people might see it, but what do they know? Editors might see it, but who cares about them? Reviewers might rub it in your eyes like hot chillies, but, well, don’t critics all have chips on their shoulders?

The evidence is murkier, less easily defined. But the holes on that target are poems. That’s the truth.

Hmmmm. I guess I haven't really dealt with the stinging "and may even reinforce it" in this post...

New Hutchison Poem

If you buy a copy of the Sunday Herald tomorrow, you’ll find, inside the accompanying Scottish Review of Books, a new poem by Alexander Hutchison about W.S. Graham, which will, no doubt, make it worth buying the newspaper.

Eurovision Tonight

Tonight from 8pm on BBC1, it’s Eurovision 2009, live from Moscow. I plan to blog on it periodically in real time, so please tune in here too.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Slams, Audiences, And Numbers

Three readings in quick succession:

1. I took part in the voXboX ‘quiet slam’ – participants got marks taken off for ranting, shouting etc. In other words, not like an average slam at all. Each poet had two rounds to strut their stuff. My first round poem (from my book) totally bombed with the judges, but in the second round (two new poems) I did very well. I’m not sure what I think of slams. They’re OK in the performance circuit where they are part and parcel of that whole scene. But the idea of poets competing live for approval and popularity from audience or judges makes me a little uncomfortable.

It could be argued that this is no different from sending work to magazines or publishers and inviting them to judge it – those approved get in and the rest are locked out… But the public nature of performance and the real-time reaction of audience/judges might tend to encourage more of a desire in poets to do only the approved thing and tailor poems towards instant accessibility and immediate entertainment rather than subtle layering.

That said, I enjoyed the evening. voXboX is a lively event with a good atmosphere, and I thought that many of the poems were good. The winner after a third final round was the excellent Colin Donati – deservedly. He is one of the best poets around at the moment in this part of the world.

2. In a church hall situated in a fairly tough, very un-middle-class area of Edinburgh, Andy Philip and I read from our books and Alan Crocker played flamenco guitar. We had an audience of about 40, the vast majority of who had never been to a poetry reading before. Many confessed to me afterwards that they’d come not expecting to like it much, but had been genuinely surprised. It shows two things.

Firstly, that people often like poetry when they come across it, even if they think it’s going to be ‘beyond them.’ Poetry isn’t dead, it’s more a too-well-kept secret. We have to get it ‘out there’ because, when we do, new audiences emerge.

Secondly, you don’t need to dumb down poetry to attract an audience for it. You don’t need to serve up really simple poems for people to relate to them or otherwise engage with them. I’ve always felt that and I now have the proof. What Andy and I read could have fitted just as well had we been reading at the Scottish Poetry Library or any other literary event. This evening was a real success.

3. ‘Poetry at the…’ featured Robert Crawford, Gerry McGrath, JL Williams and Julia Rampen. They were all excellent. I did my MC thing. It was another varied but high quality evening. The crowd was much smaller than I had expected, a dip from previous months, and I don’t know how to explain that. I know that some people who habitually come were away, ill, or otherwise engaged, but that’s always the case with any event.

This does illustrate how precarious a live poetry series is. A small crowd for one evening is OK, but similar numbers over three months or so would be simply unsustainable (in a financial sense). Anyway, the audience seemed to enjoy the readings very much. The next date is Sunday 14th June with a cracking line-up: Katy Evans-Bush, Allan Crosbie, Andrew Philip and Ivy Alvarez. My only problem with this one is to decide on which order they should read. I’ll probably have to toss a coin or draw lots.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Books, Books, And More Books

I’d no sooner cleared my desk of poetry-books-for-review when five more arrived: three published by Carcanet, one by Shearsman, and one by Waterloo Press. I began by reading a few poems from each and then settled into one of the Carcanet books, which is quite good, I think. Because of all this, I haven’t even been able to start the two new Salt books from Luke Kennard and Jamey Dunham.

I visited the Christian Aid Secondhand Booksale (Europe’s biggest) on George Street and came away with more books – a New Selected Poems of Ted Hughes 1957-1994, Michael Hofmann’s Approximately Nowhere, and Paul Muldoon’s Meeting the British. A week or two before, I’d picked up Frank Kuppner’s astonishing Arioflotga, a long poem consisting only of first lines from imaginary poems that make up a mythical anthology. It looks really funny, apart from anything else.

All good stuff, but I don’t know when I’m going to get a chance to read them, nor where I’m going to put them. I’ve decided it’s time for a clear-out of books I know I’ll never read again, especially those which weren’t much good first time. I don’t like removing books from my shelf and prefer to hoard them, but I will nevertheless enjoy the de-cluttered sensation once they have taken up position in whatever charity shop I hand them to.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Clockwork Gift - Claire Crowther

Claire Crowther’s second collection, The Clockwork Gift (Shearsman Press, 2009), shows its intent from the outset. In the first poem, ‘Petra Genetrix’, there’s the precise, economic language and emotional resonance that characterises her imagery:

Lines get broken.
All I see in museums

is the frozen watchfulness of a previous home.

The poems fuse the past and future together, meditate on the nature of memory and on how one generation finds its echoes in another – the child becomes an adult, the adult becomes a child. ‘Sleeping on a Trampoline’ juxtaposes impressions and images to build up a mysterious scene, inhabited by both threat and humour. The imagery is vivid and sensuous. Coming down from a mystical trampoline bounce that lasts a few minutes, the narrator’s feet

plunge into sturdy skin, the palm throws me
back at a long day’s sky like a duck, shuttlecock,
bee, the smack of body against my bones,

not-hug, not-massage, not-relax-you’re-cared-for,

only a continent moving by my right shoulder.

The sounds, the timing, the clear sense of poetic line – the craft is top-rate. It’s an astonishing poem, which concerns a ‘thike’ (a mythical, small, furry animal, which features in several poems) somehow in human form. Claire Crowther weaves fragments of imagery together to create a picture which is strange, sinister, and haunting. The layered repetition and variations require attention, several reads, and illustrate why this is not the kind of collection you can rush through and pop back on the shelf.

‘Age Refuses a Grandmother’ concerns a ‘tower woman’, alluding to the Rapunzel fairy tale (‘My turret captures girls with long hair/ and longings to be locked up in’). The woman looks out at her father and at (I think) a child. The poem refers to grandmothers who are long gone and yet somehow still present (‘There they sit, full of tea, as young as you.’). The conclusion is typical of poems in this book. It doesn’t try to sum everything up neatly. Instead, it moves in to deeper, discomforting territory and lodges itself in the mind of the reader:

Turret room, it’s not easy to make it cosy,
its back against the wall of a tower house.

A playground swing. It swirls its iron round

your head. Dangerous rocking.

If there is any justice in the world, this book will be on the shortlists for all the prizes this year, not just the usual suspects.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Fourth Taster

On the ‘Poetry at the…’ site, you can read a short bio of Robert Crawford with a link to one of his poems, the only one, in fact, I could find on the Internet that hadn’t been posted illegally without permission... You can hear Robert read along with Gerry McGrath, JL Williams and Julia Rampen tomorrow, Sunday 10th May from 8pm at the Jekyll & Hyde pub, Edinburgh (downstairs in the Crypt Bar). It will be excellent. Don’t miss it if you’re anywhere near!

Friday, May 08, 2009

Gay Clergy

There’s a fair bit of concern over the latest controversy to hit the Church of Scotland – the issue whether Scott Rennie, an openly gay minister, should be allowed to take up his new post at Queens Cross Parish Church in Aberdeen. Will it split the church? The Scottish Kirk, while it has made mistakes in the past (who hasn’t?), has generally been fairly liberal and inclusive. The identity of that church is up for grabs. Those who want the church to operate on a narrow theological basis and exclude those who commit specific sins they particularly disapprove of are making their push. On Saturday 23rd May, the Church’s General Assembly (top decision-making body) will debate the matter.

But more than that, this controversy is about a person. Scott Rennie was minister of Brechin Cathedral for nine years. For several of these years, he has been in an openly gay relationship, and no one thought to protest. By all accounts, he was good at his job and well liked by everyone. He applied for the post at Queen’s Cross and was accepted in a vote by a healthy 86% of the congregation there. The Presbytery of Aberdeen sustained the appointment by 60 votes to 24. The petition to the General Assembly seeks to overturn these decisions. If carried, it will, in effect, exclude gay clergy from applying for church-minister posts. They will either have to conceal their relationships and live a lie, remain celibate for their entire lives, or give up their vocation.

The stress Scott already has gone through must have been considerable. If the petition to the General Assembly is passed, it will leave him not only without a job but with the sense that he, as an individual, has been rejected by the very organisation he has given so much of his life to. The human cost of all this appears irrelevant to those opposing him. Truth, they say, is more important than any sense of compassion for a human being. They mean their sense of truth, of course, their prejudices and fears, their opinions. They claim the Bible is ‘clear on these matters’ but it is clear only to them. The Bible suggests that menstruating women should be placed outside the camp for a number of days. It also says that people should not eat meat with blood in it. I presume that people who profess to take the Bible literally take those commands to heart as well!

The passages that are often cited from the New Testament concerning sexual practice are deeply ambiguous. Their exact meaning is unclear and the context even less clear. In some cases, it’s unlikely that they refer to homosexuality at all. In other cases, they certainly don’t refer to committed, loving relationships. Rather than living with ambiguity, fundamentalists always want to nail things down, which always means (somewhat ironically) nailing down anyone who gets in their way.

It’s intriguing, to say the least, that Jesus himself had nothing to say on the matter. Clearly, he didn’t consider the issue important enough to pronounce on, which simply begs the question why the matter has become of such central importance for the conservative wing of the church. Why this ’sin’ as opposed to all the others? The fundamentalist wing of the church seems strangely obsessed with it. Why? And why get so hot and bothered over what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms and, simultaneously, remain virtually silent on the fact that two-thirds of the world’s population live in poverty, that millions of children die every year of easily cured diseases like diarrhoea? Aren’t these sins more worth getting obsessed about?

The truth is that, while fundamentalists claim their liberal colleagues are ‘selective’ over which verses of the Bible they choose to take account of, the fundamentalists are every bit as selective, if not more so. The difference is that they are blind to their own prejudices. They don’t even realise it. That’s what makes them impossible to argue with. I only hope the General Assembly sees sense on 23rd May and allows Scott Rennie to take up his post and – in doing that – stands up for an inclusive church and an inclusive Scotland. I have a degree of confidence that they will indeed do that and I hope my confidence is not misplaced.

There is a Facebook Cause Group which you can join in support of Scott Rennie.

And this is an interesting and personal reflection by Stephen Glenn on the subject of church and sexuality.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A Job

I've been asked to let people know about this job vacancy:

Tyne and Esk Writers, with the support of Midlothian Council and East Lothian Council, wish to appoint a creative writer with a record of publication to this part-time position (average 17.5 hours weekly). The Fellowship will be for a period of 6 months and will involve support to writers’ groups and individual writers throughout the two authority areas. Stipend £6,000. Applications should be made in writing by 29 May to: Midlothian Council Library Service , Library HQ, 2 Clerk Street, Loanhead, Midlothian EH20 9DR

A Third Taster

You can now read a bio and poem by Julia Rampen, who will be reading at the Jekyll & Hyde Bar (112 Hanover Street) this Sunday 10th May from 8pm along with Robert Crawford, Gerry McGrath and JL Williams.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Discuss The Opposite Of Cabbage

Next Monday 11th May from 6.30pm until 8pm, the ‘New Books’ group in the Scottish Poetry Library (at the link, you need to scroll down to 'Poetry Reading Groups') will be reading and discussing poems from The Opposite of Cabbage. Can you believe it? In some ways, I wish I could be a fly on the wall for this one… I'm pretty sure you don't have to have read (or even bought) the book to take part, so if you're in the vicinity of Edinburgh that night, head for the SPL.

Party, Slam, And Two Readings

Looks like a busy week for me. There’s various work-related stuff I have to get done. My daughter has her 7th birthday party today (she was 7 last week but this was the first date we could manage a party). It’s a small party, just a few of her best friends, but it still means two hours of chaos for us.

On Thursday evening, I am reading as part of the ‘quiet slam’, run by voXboX in the Meadow Bar, Causewayside, Edinburgh from 8pm. I’ve never taken part in a slam before, even a quiet one. I will no doubt get turfed out in the first round, but I aim to enjoy the experience in any case.

Then on Friday evening, I’m reading a set in St David’s, Broomhouse Church Hall, Broomhouse Crescent, Edinburgh, from 7.30pm along with Andrew Philip, and with fine musician Alan Crocker doing a classical guitar spot. There may also be other guest performers.

On Sunday evening, it’s Poetry at the Jekyll & Hyde with Robert Crawford, Gerry McGrath, JL Williams and Julia Rampen. I'm looking forward to this!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Poet Laureate: Carol Ann Duffy

So Carol Ann Duffy is our new Poet Laureate. The press reaction has been predictable – first women, first Scot etc. Nothing is interesting to the press unless they can present it as some kind of landmark, the difference this time being that a woman poet laureate really is an important symbol.

Some press reports have mentioned her work and have called it (with a degree of approval) “simple” and “direct.” Well, some of it is, but most of CAD’s work isn’t that simple or direct. Her best poems are as nuanced and irreducible to prose as poetry should be. Her most famous poem, Prayer, from Mean Time (1993), is a subtle, moving and provocative reflection on finding meaning in a secular society, and Havisham, from the same collection, which begins memorably, “Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then/ I haven’t wished him dead.” (probably not one of those included on the school exam list!), contains even more memorable lines in the closing stanza:

…a red balloon bursting
in my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding-cake.
Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.

What might she achieve as poet laureate? Well, I doubt we’ll see any royal poems from her and I hope she gets rid of those nonsensical trappings from what the job used to involve. I hope she uses her time to convince the powers-that-be that 10 years is too long a period for laureateship. I feel a 3-years would be much better. I’d like to see her stand up for pluralism in poetry as opposed to populism, to give support and publicity to the work of independent poetry presses (she was published by Anvil for many years and will know how hard it can be), and to work imaginatively in getting children and schools interested in poetry (she is well qualified for that task).

All the best to her.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Second Taster For May 2009 Readings

You can now read a bio and poem from JL Williams who will be reading at the Jekyll & Hyde pub (112 Hanover Street, Edinburgh) on Sunday 10th May from 8pm along with Robert Crawford, Gerry McGrath and Julia Rampen. All welcome.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Two songs from The Fall from a 1983 TV appearance, with no concessions whatsoever. Quite right as well.