Letter from Scotland, Spring 2013

We’ve had a hard winter and a long cold spring in Scotland. StAnza, the festival I organise was an unlikely success, given that instead of the spring flowers and March sunshine we usually enjoy in St Andrews along with the poetry, this year we caught the start of snow which was to blanket parts of the country through into April. Rain, wind and then finally blizzards blew away the canopy over our happed-up stonecarver, discouraged people from spending much time on outdoor installations around town and made student models turn saltire blue around the edges as they took Dutch poetry dresses on a cat walk tour of local dress shops, but fortunately none of the poets were blown away and our audience did not desert us.

In fact people packed out the festival café hub for our daily poetry breakfast panel discussions and late night open mic events. The bad weather they encountered as they dashed between venues drew them together over coffee or something stronger to keep out the cold. More than 70 poets took part so any review can just pick out a couple of highlights, but the night Mark Doty shared a stage with Erín Moure was pretty special; and the Scottish poet Robin Robertson, who declined my suggestion that he retire to bed with a Lemsip but whose flu resulted in him reading from his new collection, Hill of Doors, in tones, as he said, “more sepulchral than necessary”, gave us an unforgettable festival finale. Scottish noire indeed.

But after all that, what I really needed was a little bit of what we got in 2012, an early heatwave in late March. No such luck. Snow on the hills  became the accustomed backdrop to any journey and even in May, despite the sun making a tardy appearance, a shivering wind was always just around the next corner. And in St Andrews, it comes straight across the North Sea from Scandinavia. I recently read for “Platform Poetry” at a new arts venue in the converted stationmaster’s house at Ladybank. The only other time I’ve read beside a real fire was in a forest clearing in Lithuanian, but the coals blazing away in the stationmaster’s grate that evening were more than welcome. However, even though the bluebells are a month behind, and we haven’t yet chased away that wind, there’s something about the light evenings of May which suggests renewal or reawakening. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a popular month here for book launches – you can travel home afterwards at 10.00 pm in full daylight.

One of the poets invited to this year’s StAnza festival was Chris Hamilton Emery, the high profile editor behind Salt Publishing. There’s been much lamenting that Salt, which features regularly in prize lists and over the past 13 years has published many debut poets, has decided to stop producing single-author collections and, at least as far as poetry is concerned, concentrate on anthologies. And poetry is very concerned. Just ten days before this was announced, two Scottish poets, Rob A. Mackenzie and Andrew Philip jointly launched their second Salt collections – The Good News and The North End of the Possible – in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. If Rob and Andy already knew about the less good news heading north it must have been a bittersweet occasion for them, and they won’t be the only Scottish poets to feel the loss – Salt tears are being shed by many who had hoped Chris Hamilton Emery might have smiled on them.

I was in Edinburgh again a couple of weeks later for another book launch at the SPL.  The library is out of sight tucked down a close running between the Canongate, which forms the lower part of the Royal Mile, and Holyrood Road, but to find it you need only look out for the life-size statue of the 18th century Scottish poet, Robert Fergusson (described by Robert Burns as “by far my elder brother in the muse”), which stands on the pavement opposite as if to point the way. For some reason, Fergusson’s bronze statue currently boasts a single multi coloured knitted legging, but he carries it off easily.  While his poetry is secure in the poetry library, his mortal remains were buried in nearby Canongate Kirk graveyard in an unmarked grave. Burns afterwards paid for a gravestone to be erected, and later again Robert Louis Stevenson planned to pay for the stone to be renovated, but died before he could do so. The real life ‘Clarinda’, Nancy Maclehose for whom Burns wrote the poem/song ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ is buried there as well.

Back to the Edinburgh of 2013: the library was again packed to the gunnels for the launch of Havera, the Story of an Island. As a latecomer, I had to settle for a cushion on the floor but my perch gave me the best view of a slideshow of wonderful black and white photographs projected onto the back wall. This project to celebrate one of the smaller Shetland islands, abandoned by its last residents in 1923, is a collaboration between the Edinburgh based poet, Christine De Luca, who still writes in her native Shetlandic, a photographer and a composer, and the memories of some surviving former island residents. Shetlandic is a merging of Scots and Norse, wonderful on the tongue and ear, and Christine is active in efforts to keep it a living language for poetry.

a graet sky abön, a ocean froadin
at hit cöts.  Da wirld awa oot dere
(from An dat’s Havera  by Christine Da Luca)

As well as her own writing, she also edits and publishes other Shetlandic poets, a fair number of whom now live in the central belt.  I’m told that children born on the islands nowadays grow up knowing that one day they’ll leave, and that most won’t return. There’s something in this attachment and separation dichotomy which echoes through the work of many Scottish island poets.

I arrived late at the launch of Havera because I was juggling two events that evening, the first of which was at the National Library of Scotland. Each year in May the NLS hosts the presentation of the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award for excellence in pamphlet poetry. The winning publishers this year were Stewed Rhubarb Press, for a collection from Rachel McCrum, all round a very satisfactory outcome for StAnza. Rachel read at our festival this year and Stewed Rhubarb’s co-publisher, James Harding, has worked for StAnza, so much joyful tweeting followed.

In fact it was James who gave us the idea for the Digital Slam which we ran online last July, when we invited poets anywhere to send us a link to an online video or audio recording of them reading. Nearly 40 entered, we whittled it down to a shortlist of a dozen from Europe and the US which we embedded online. More than 500 voted. It was a close finish between Donnie Welch in Massachusetts and Kevin P. Gilday from Glasgow, with the latter coming out on top at the 12 noon deadline.

Apart from the weather and grim economic news as the UK government tries to dismantle our welfare state, the other big story running here at present is, of course, the independence referendum which will take place in September 2014, when Scotland will have a chance to vote to leave the United Kingdom. Poets are drawn into the argument as much as anyone. Rob Mackenzie has for years been writing about Scotland’s post-Calvanist thrashing about for identity, and in his new book Andy Philip’s protagonist MacAdam with his “chip-poke soul” lives “at the north end of the possible”. Is that where Scotland’s fated to end up? No-one can deny there has been a national and cultural resurgence here since devolution 20 years ago gave us our own parliament again, despite how much we criticise it, and we’ve always had our own legal and educational systems. On the other hand, Creative Scotland, the agency which took over funding of the arts in Scotland from the Scottish Arts Council, has been through much upheaval and uncertainty recently, there’s been a loss of confidence amongst some of the arts community, various high profile controversies and there are unresolved issues about our cultural infrastructure. For example in publishing, where most of our higher profile poets – Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, John Burnside, etc – still look to England for a publisher. So what’s going to happen in 2014, the year in which Scotland will host the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Club and mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, before being asked to pick up a blunt pencil and  vote on our future. A project recently polled 40 Scottish musicians on the issue and published their views. The poet Jenny Lindsay is now soliciting the views of Scottish poets, with a view to posting them online as well. Hmmm. That should put the cat well and truly amongst the doos.

Eleanor Livingstone, 1st June 2013

Eleanor Livingstone is a Scottish poet, reviewer and editor who lives in Fife. She is the Director of StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival which takes place annually in St Andrews (www.stanzapoetry.org). Her first full collection, Even the Sea (Red Squirrel Press, 2010), now in a second edition, was shortlisted for the 2010 inaugural London New Poetry award for first collections. Her other publications include The Last King of Fife (HappenStance, 2005), A Sampler (HappenStance, 2008) and as editor Skein of Geese (The Shed Press, 2008) and Migraasje: Versions in Scots and Shetlandic (Stravaigers, 2008).

One comment

  1. Hi Eleanor, and what is your position on independence for Scotland? and Stanza’s board position? You might become frightfully ingrown as is much of
    the Wales’ scene…. Kerry

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