Thursday, 25 November 2010

'Cameron to measure nation's happiness' says the BBC. Alternatively, try this tall tale from British Columbia...

'112. Insider's View of Moose
KEITH HENDERSON: People today, they think that the economic crunch and the hard times are bad, but they don't really know what it's all about. It's really the lap of luxury we're living today compared to the dirty thirties. I remember my dad, he was living in a French community at the time. And they're predominantly Liberal, as they always are. Oh times were tough, you know [...] as far as meat was concerned, we didn't have any. So the winter was bad and he decided to go up in the northern part of B.C., and he was going to do a bit of trapping and he was going to shoot a moose. We'd have our meat then. And he hoped to make a few dollars by trapping [...] A storm blew up and just then he shot a moose. He gutted and cleaned this moose out and oh, the blizzard blew up just terrible. He knew there was just no way with the low temperature, and the freezing and the blizzard [that] he was just not going to survive the night. There was no shelter. There was little or nothing to make a shelter out of there. So he looked at this moose and he thought, "Well gosh that carcass is pretty warm, I have a heavy coat, I'll just crawl in this carcass of this moose and it's warm. At least it will protect me from the blizzard and the driving wind and the snow and everything. I'll survive the night that way." And so he got his big coat and he bundled up and he crawled in this moose, and he pulled the sides down–the flaps of the skin down. And he did. He survived the night real well, [and was] warm as toast in the morning. But god, when he woke up in the morning, he saw that there was just no way that he was going to get out. That damn carcass had frozen solid. Well he knew that death was going to come to him, and there was a tear came in his eye as he started to think of his wife and all the kids at home, and how were we going to survive, and things like that. I guess in all such cases, you know, your life sort of passes around in front of your eyes. It all unfolds like a motion picture. He thought back over happier days, and he was getting sadder by the minute. And then he finally remembered one time–the one and only time–he voted Liberal. And you know, he felt so small, he just crawled out of that hole in the gullet, and went off home.'

Tall Tales of British Columbia, ed. Michael Taft, Sound Heritage Series, No. 39, Victoria, 1983

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

If anyone's in London next week...

Oxfam Christmas Poetry Night
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
7.30 pm

Oxfam Books and Music Shop
91 Marylebone High Street, London W1
near Baker Street tube.

The Oxfam Poetry Reading in Marylebone series ends its 7th year of events on
a high note with six guest poets - including two coming especially from
Scotland for the occasion - TS Eliot Prize winning Bloodaxe poet Jen
Hadfield and Picador poet John Glenday whose recent collection Grain has
been shortlisted for the 2010 Ted Hughes Award for New Work In Poetry.

This internationally-minded series will also be featuring a poet from
Ireland (Barbara Smith), reading on her birthday, two prize-winning American
poets, Dante Micheaux and Michelle Boisseau and England's own Sheila
Hillier, whose recent collection was shortlisted for this year’s Aldeburgh

The host for the evening will be Todd Swift.

The event is supported by Kingston University. Tickets are £5 / £3
concession (students) in advance or at the door (if seats remain). Do call
or email the shop to buy or book tickets:

Telephone : 020 7487 3570.


Saturday, 30 October 2010

Here is the chaff

This is the second part of the work, the chaff or carvings out from the clay tablets. They were as much Juana's name as the cuneiform incisions I thought. I have wanted in this work to suggest something about the precious and irreplaceable. Here's what I came up with.


Well the firing's gone fine. The whole process is astounding. The kiln has a lit instrument panel on which you can see the heat building gradually through 600 degrees, followed by a short spike of 1200 degrees. And clay becomes stone. Even at that temperature, the sharp contours of the carved clay were preserved. I'm amazed with what I got away with. Last night and this morning have been the last minute fixings and packings-up which always take much longer than you think. I'm writing this post in town: the broadband's down. Now I'm going home to clear up the packing materials, the fragments of gold leaf, the clay dust, the sticky smears of gold size on the counter. Vacuuming, washing up, changing the water in the fish tank, and with that, I accept it's out of my hands, and I get back to something like what I call normal...

An image of the second part of the work follows...

Friday, 29 October 2010

Just heading to town to see what's happened in the kiln...

fingers crossed. In the meantime, here's the poem for Juana...


When I doodled
my own name

in dirt and sand and snow
I was also learning how

to map the cursive sierras and barrancas
of her name,

the swash J we share,
mem, mu, the sign for water,

the many aleph snarled
in its current like fish eggs,

Juana Aguinaga Mares.

Resh, rho, the head,
he, the praying or calling figure,

shin or sigma. Only as we designed
and redesigned our first signatures

am I tutoring my hand in the quickstep
of her name, her names,

Juana Aguinaga Mares
Juana Iñiquez Mares

and the stylus to hop and prod and probe
in its plateau'd clay-flats like a wading bird.

With the acute awl of its bill
it's hiding her name in her name

Juana Aguinaga Mares.

Here is the codicil,
the indelible petroglyph of her name,

here are its watersheds,
here is its chaff or till,

here are the untranslateable
canyons and the lunar basin

and range of the name
of her daughter's mother and her mother's

mi hijita

Juana Aguinaga Mares.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


After gunmen murdered 14 teenagers at a birthday party in Cuidad Juarez on Friday, the Mexican president's response on twitter was cursory, suggesting that brutal violence in the state of Chihuahua is beginning to be seen as the normal order.

Tamsyn Challenger has asked 200 artists to create portraits of 400 women who have been murdered in Chihuahua in the last decade, 'confronting us with and safeguarding in our memory the dead and disappeared.' The exhibition is curated by Ellen Mara De Wachter.

Juana Aguinaga Mares was murdered in the Palo Chino neighborhood in 1997.

Tamsyn asked me to write a poem for the exhibition catalogue, to which Juana's name was integral. Amnesty International's Mexican team and the Rape Crisis centre in Cuidad Juarez were able to provide photographs of many of the murdered women, but none existed of Juana. I found it hard to imagine making something for Juana that was of any value. Except that she was a mother, everything I knew about her was inseparably connected to what I knew about her murder: the cause of her death, what she was wearing, where her body was found.

I wrote her name out in full. And again.

There was a tub of liquified porcelain on the kitchen counter. I poured some into the lid of a tobacco tin and set it on the radiator to dry. What fell from the tin the next day was a smooth tablet of clay, slightly rust-stained. I was able to erase the rust with nothing more abrasive than my fingerprint. I began to write Juana's name in the unfired clay. I wrote her name again and again until it was illegible.

It occurred to me that her name, written like this, was inseparable from the clay, as our DNA is inseparably written through us. Even when the tablet cracked, which it did, often, it cracked along the contours of her name. Since then, I've written her name hundreds of times, as you do when you're a child, learning to write your own name, as you design your signature for the first time. The poem for the catalogue is just an account of the work in porcelain, really. I'll post it in a day or so.

On Thursday I'm going to try firing the tablets. Fired porcelain is surprisingly strong, despite its translucency and apparent delicacy. Unfired, it's exceptionally fragile. The difficulty will be getting the tablets through the firing. They're thin and necessarily contain hundreds of weak points. They're also likely to warp, apparently. Updates on Friday as to how that's gone.

If the firing goes well, the tablets will be set in tobacco tins, lined with gold leaf. There's another tricky procedure, but I like the fact that the materials I am using to commemorate the name of Juana Aguinaga Mares are fragile and precious, difficult and dear.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Snow in October...

what kind of winter does that portend? Well, I'm liking staying in, anyway. I've been looking after some friends' creatures over the October break: ducks, hens, cats and a glorious ginger pig called Mildred. I let them out of their houses in the morning, back in at night to protect them from polecats, and in between, water, corn and vegetables and Whiskers and something that looks like cornflakes for the ducks, keeping an eye on the weather. A matins, compline and vespers. In between I'm working hard and better. I've succumbed again to the temptation to rewrite the first 80 000 words of the novel, finally settling it in the first person and the past tense. This is clearing out some of the clag: it's flowing better. And I'm making writing tablets of unfired porcelain, for a project by Tamsyn Challenger and Ellen Mara De Wachter called 400 Women. I'm writing one woman's name over and over in the unfired clay, retaining the shards and clay dust that I carve out. I'll post photographs soon and write a bit more about my thinking, but I'm wanting to go a bit further with the technique first...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Guillet's Goby

Very excited that my pal Rachel Hope with Richard Shucksmith has found and photographed Europe's smallest fish here in Shetland.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Poetry Week on Radio Shetland

To celebrate National Poetry Day this Thursday, Radio Shetland's hosting local poets reading their own work on the theme of "Islands."

Listen again to Keith Simpson reading 'Miss South Shetland' and keep an ear out throughout the week for readings by Mark Ryan Smith, Rhoda Bulter and me...just before the 6 o'clock news. I'll post a link to Laureen Johnson's excellent reading of 'Islanders' from yesterday if I can but work out the iPlayer!

Limpet Fever

Here's the new generation of limpets. These are in unfired porcelain so they're still fragile and dusty and I have to watch out when I open the curtains each morning. I really like them at this stage: if I decide I don't like the shape of this one or that (I'm aspiring for a very particular shape: not too scalene, not too equilaterial, not too pointy, not too bulgy) I can crush them into a tupperware tub of water and melt them down to wet clay again. A sort of life cycle. At some point I'll bite the bullet and fire them.

Limpet fever. At least I'm not the only one...

Long Live the Limpet

Friday, 10 September 2010

Save The Arts

A petition and an excellent video defending the arts against government spending cuts

Friday, 2 July 2010

Writing Week in Shetland and Fair Isle

Places still available on this year's Fiddle Frenzy writing course, including writing workshops, one-to-ones, cultural trips and an optional retreat to Fair Isle..

Scroll down through the brochure past the fiddle stuff...

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Craning out of the kitchen window

while eight whooper swans made a low double pass over the house.

The final flush of dog-violet...

Heath milkwort, starry squill, the new blue...

Sunday, 16 May 2010


I went straight from bed to the garden this morning, taking the mexican blanket with me to finish off my lie-in outside; dogroses hectic with bees and flies, feet bare to sun my single chilblain. Every so often Owl would stagger out from the ribena bushes with buckling legs and fall over on the blanket next to me, and when we both got too hot, he'd stagger back into the shade, and I staggered up to the wall to get the sea-breeze on my face. Yep, summer. Yachts from Brittany and Trondheim in Lerwick Harbour, snipe drumming last night under the finest skelf of a moon, tiny little flowers coming out on the moor and sassy grasses, and the broken blue eggshells of starlings everywhere. I met a cormorant (let's plump for a cormorant and not make a meal of it) sitting by the second of the three lochans, quite distant from the sea. He had his wings out limply and looked about as addled as I feel now.

Thursday, 6 May 2010


as the votes come in...

Friday, 30 April 2010

A.B.Jackson's Apocrypha

Thrilled to get a sneak preview at the manuscript for A.B.Jackson's new pamphlet, due out with the very elegant Donut Press in October. It's rare that I recommend poems so fervently, being very hard to please, but these are surreal as sherbert, right as rain, delicious, hilarious, heart-breaking, big-hearted.

Here's the link to Donut Press

And the author's website...

Thursday, 22 April 2010

the lochan in wind's the busy brain
of a computer, its binary of dip and wave
so far sophisticated from the yes/no
of grey or eye-blue/lake-bottom indigo
that forms and faces evolve on its shroud,
and are erased, and gulls on the pasture
shelter from its news. News is never now
plain good or bad white foam gathers
at the northernmost shore.
the lochan in wind's the busy brain
of a computer, its binary of dip and waves
so far evolved from the yes/no
of grey or eye-blue/lake-bottom indigo
that forms bloom upon it like a relic shroud
and are erased
the lochan in wind's the busy brain
of a computer, its rattling binary of dips
and waves, pale/indigo
The lochan in wind's the busy brain
of a computer, a

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Lie Detector

I've always recommended reading new writing aloud, as a test of fluency, as a way to replace those irksome editing commandments, such as 'the use of adjectives is lazy' or 'show, don't tell!' with a reliance on a more abstract, and more instinctive sense for what does and doesn't work. If you read a passage aloud, and it embarrasses you, or worse, bores you, the urge to see if something else might be more successful is pretty irresistible. It doesn't seem to work in your head. Well, it doesn't seem to work in MY head.

You need to...I mean I need to...apply the lie-detector, the tongue tapping away at the palate, prodding the backs of the teeth, wriggling in its soft bed. But I've always thought of this as a negative process, a way of putting wrong things right. What I had forgotten is how the act of animating text in my mouth makes the fictional voice go live, meaning the voice, finally, has begun to make its own demands, and the story begins to write itself. All of a sudden, my characters are jostling to tell the story. All of a sudden, 1000 words a day is easy as breathing, though it takes much, much longer.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010


Home again, and the two bunches of tulips I bought cheap at the end of the Saturday market, kept in the fridge and coddled all the way home through two overheated airports, planes, are stuffed in a too-big too-square glass vase by the side of the sofa I write on. They are red like the inside of a black cat's ear is red when the sun shines through it. This is the most beautiful little room in the sun. My windowsill covered in limpet shells, and some unfired attempts to evoke the limpet in porcelain. I still haven't seen the results of the bisque-firing. Beyond, Mary's roof, with yellow lichens incandescent in sunlight, the shadowed Clift Hills. Hot, happy cat, piled on my ankle.

Thursday, 8 April 2010


I'm in Delft, enjoying the apparent simplicity of my task: to look after three very kittenish cats while my sister is away, to walk about the tilting, tiled streets and canals, learn how to cook some new food, write my 1000 words a day, read, a lot – Landing Light (Don Paterson); Distance and Proximity (Thomas A.Clark); The Complete Writings of Emily Carr; Strong Words (Bloodaxe's Modern Poets on Modern Poetry) and Strong Medicine, a book about the history of general practice on Canada's northwest coast.

It's perverse how much easier these things are, away from home.

The Dutch folk big and small whizz about very upright on their bicycles, and I am accommodating to the generalisation; walking more upright, and feel my lungs unruffling, uncreasing, unrolling like a pair of sails. Sometimes it's a relief to be anonymous, and sometimes, as the other day, it's a treat to have the small-world experience.

When I leave Shetland, I don't expect to run into anyone I know, but in Edinburgh Airport I met a friend, from Edinburgh, who I first met at the Fiddle Frenzy writing course last summer, in Shetland, who was on my flight to the Netherlands with her partner. When I settled into my seat, the woman next to me said "excuse me, I have a feeling I know you, from a reading at the Scottish Poetry Library..."

Squid for my tea...

Friday, 26 March 2010

O Dear

I'm not sure I should be allowed a blog. It's been months, hasn't it? Fluency, whether in poems, novels, blogs, emails, seems to be a discrete with me. Either I am or I ain't. I haven't been. I am being, a bit more, now. 60,000 words and some months of grimly putting one word set in 1930s Canada after another, I suddenly have the feeling that things are beginning to get easier; something is about to happen, this character or that is becoming someone...

Maybe it's just that I'm reading two very impressive books: Mantel's Wolf Hall, and Janice Galloway's Clara...and that always makes me feel creatively hopeful. As for my own effort, I daren't read it back. It is still too stumbling. Not yet, not yet...