Thursday, 1 December 2011

Share your poetry with a large, appreciative & captive audience!

As the Shetland Library's Reader-in-Residence, I'll be selecting six new poems to grace the doors of public toilets in Shetland in a new round of 'Bards in the Bog'. Poems can be on any subject, but must be written by the entrant, unpublished and less than 12 lines so that they can be enlarged

to large print. Send/drop in entries to the Shetland Library or email them to, including contact details so we can let you know if your poem's been chosen.

Deadline for submissions 21st December. Poems will appear in public toilets from January 2012.

Shetland Library, Lower Hillhead, Lerwick, Shetland, ZE1 0EL

Readers in Residence is developed and administered by Shetland Arts Development Agency and part of Creative Scotland¹s Creative Futures programme<>: promoting, connecting and developing Scotland's creative practitioners

Friday, 25 November 2011

Creative Futures Blog

I'm taking a partial sabbatical from this blog to post about my tenure as Reader-in-Residence at the Shetland Library on Creative Futures. Hopefully see you there!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

In between lots of exciting Reader Development work...

I'm thinking about my 'jargon' collaboration with Doug Robertson again...I wish I wasn't so SLOW...

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

'Go not – today at least – through the wilds of Dunrossness...'

My second day in as the Shetland Library's Reader in Residence, I join a lunch-hour book-group on the Mezzanine. It's grim out, but the Mezzanine's a comfortable place to nest down in, with Scott's The Pirate on the menu.

'I liked it...until I fell asleep in the middle' confesses one member. Like many, I find dense, historical tales like The Pirate a wee bit daunting, but the group agree that they've found a good way to tackle the Victorian novel. Reading manageable portions each week, with the prospect of discussing the chapters informally, helps them appreciate things like Scott's dramatic scene-setting and wry, self-deprecating humour.

The Pirate is set in Shetland, and a debate follows about how true we feel Scott's depiction is to Shetland landscape and culture. Some think Scott's Shetland – such as his account of the Shetlander's delicacy and hospitality on meeting a stranger – is convincing. A reader has brought along a portrait of Scott's Magnus Troil that currently hangs in the Shetland Museum, sporting some very dashing Fair Isle socks. The connection is made between Norna, with her supernatural powers, to Bessie Millie of Stromness, who used to sell favourable winds to sailors. We think Scott slips up a bit when he describs the typical Shetland female as blonde and blue-eyed though...

The time comes for me to introduce myself and my post as Reader in Residence at the Shetland Library. It's basically – as one of the book-group says – the perfect job. The writer's life is rewarding but often solitary. It's going to be a treat to drop the hermit bit and to work with our heroic library staff, who toil to help readers across Shetland get hold of their next book-shaped fix.

A library is one of the most democratic institution we have: giving everyone in its community the same opportunities for professional and personal growth. It's a no-brainer that libraries are good things but, at the risk of sounding partisan, I think we're particularly blessed with ours.

Whatever you want to read, the staff will do all they can to help you get your paws on it. Mobile and housebound staff zip around Shetland all week to bring the collection to those who can't get to Hillhead. School librarians are champing at the bit to help students with their research and literacy skills and dedicated volunteers offer other services such as recording the Shetland Times for the visually-impaired, so that no one has to miss out on Friday's all-important news, info and gossip.

The Shetland Library also brings Scottish Government schemes like Bookbug and Booktime to brand-new readers, and will help you click with computers. They host book-groups, readings and author events, and on Monday and Thursday nights open late, providing a peaceful and relaxed place to hang out, read, work or check your emails. Immense beanbags and squashy sofas at your disposal. They'll help you set up your own book-group, too.

So what's left for a Reader-in-Residence to do? It's my job to encourage folk to step over our threshold for the first time and to bring brand-new projects, like our 'Poetry For Tea' sessions, starting Thursday 10th November, to existing users. I'll be trying out all kinds of ventures with schools, care-homes, book-groups and community collections. Readers in Residence is all about encouraging the Shetland community to read books, talk books, recommend books, swap books, write about books.

And this is just the tip of the book-berg. Keep an eye on , follow us on twitter or like the Shetland Library facebook site to keep in touch with the full range of events, projects and services. And if you're lucky enough to stay in Shetland, contact me at the library or to find out more about what the Reader in Residence Scheme will be doing in your community.

Readers in Residence is developed and administered by Shetland Arts Development Agency and part of Creative Scotland¹s Creative Futures programme <>: promoting, connecting and developing Scotland¹s creative practitioners.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Poetry For Tea

Have Poetry For Tea this Thursday at the Shetland Library! Bring your favourite poem to read or just sit back and listen. From 6-7 on the Mezzanine. Alright, we're not actually going to feed you...but the poems will be good...

Readers in Residence is developed and administered by Shetland Arts Development Agency and part of Creative Scotland's Creative Futures programme : promoting, connecting and developing Scotland's creative practitioners.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

New Project!

For the next six months I'll be working with the Shetland Library as one of Creative Scotland's five new Readers-in-Residence, administered by Shetland Arts Development Agency.

Readers in Residence is part of Creative Scotland's Creative Futures programme: promoting, connecting and developing Scotland's creative practitioners.

I'll be collaborating with library staff on their book-groups, promotions and services, offering events and projects in community venues, care-homes and businesses, making full use of the website ( and facebook page (go us...) and, inevitably, tweeting
for the first time.

More details about the inaugural projects to follow, but they will certainly include the return of the much-loved Bards-in-the-Bog.

The other Readers-in-Residence are Zoe Strachan for East Ayrshire Libraries, Margot Henderson for Highland Council Library Service, Maureen Sangster for the Library Service at Carstairs State Hospital and Ian Stephen for Western Isles Libraries.

First day tomorrow...can't wait...

Notes For Editors

1. ‘Creative Futures’ is an ambitious programme of residencies and related activities designed to promote the professional development, vision, connectivity and ambitions of Scotland’s creative practitioners and organisations. It is the largest co-ordinated residency programme in Europe, and includes residencies that are single discipline, interdisciplinary, cross sectoral and international.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Writing about James Goodwin's 'claytown' for the Edinburgh Review

..I'm reminded of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's large-scale industrial landscapes: mines, nickel tailings, quarries, ship-breakings, container ports...'s tasks then, were and are as follows: finish the Goodwin review; a phone call with Polly Clark about speech, poetic voice and identity; apply for membership of PVG Scheme and get public liability insurance for my upcoming project (news of this to follow); finish off another four limpets. And with the wind having dropped a bit, collect another swatch of seggies (iris leaf) to make a thick, new rope...

a typical sort of day...

Friday, 14 October 2011

Nigel Lambert mug!

Just back from a reading and a workshop in London, and failed as usual to walk past the Contemporary Ceramics Centre on my way out of the British Museum. This may be my favourite place in London, though rivalled now by the Ish-Horowicz's fruit-hung bamboo sukkah, where we shared mushroom risotto on Wednesday, celebrating the first night of Sukkot. Strange to be out in shirt-sleeves on an October evening; lovely to be included in the festival & blessings. There's something similarly harvest-celebratory about Nigel Lambert's strong, swashy strokes of glaze. I'm drinking endless brews of tea out of this one, with a lot of manuscript appraisals/mentoring/reviewing on my plate before I leave for Lancaster Litfest next weekend.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc

An evening reversing slowly across my kitchen at the end of a rapidly-lengthening rope made of sanitary disposal bags from the Scourie Hotel. The thin waxy paper makes a nice cubist sort of rope, which I'm thinking of interleaving with the rich brown rope of iris leaves collected in Skye and Uist. So a memento of the 'Poet's Tour' much in the line of Caroline Dear's make a rope a day collection...I wish I'd got to see this in Inverness.

For rope-making best choose new music you want to hear over and over again, in this case the eagerly-awaited Nordic Fiddlers Bloc CD (comes with Norwegian stamp!) that was waiting for me when I got home. You might remember me going on about them after 'Fiddle Frenzy' this year. If it reminds me of anything I've ever heard before it's 'Appalachia Waltz' by Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor. The (NFB) sound is constantly self-contradictory: wobbling in the best way between poised and unhinged; eerie and airy; acetic and ascetic, dissonant, inordinate, rapturous, just as the new October light is here. Also often earthy, as in the case of 'Maria's 27th Birthday Plattgympa' with its oscillation between lewd and douce. (I wish there was on youtube a clip of Anders Hall demonstrating the plattgympa (dance); all the more reason to try and see them live...)

It's the nature of harvest (hairst) to be a rich and melancholy time – the lambs are being driven by quadbikes around the knolls and eventually into the trailers, five whiting were swinging, yesterday, from the neighbour's washing line, drying; leaves and shaws in the veg garden rusting and rotting even as my purple turnips continue to burgeon. I've hung some coriander sprigs up in the kitchen, in case the green seeds dry enough to use for spice. It's not winter yet, but autumn's a blink here, almost as it is in the Arctic, and there's two new snow tyres on the back seat of the car, waiting to be fitted.

Busy time: rope, the first online workshop for the Poetry School tomorrow night, mentoring deadlines, and trips to readings and workshops in London and Lancaster in the next couple weeks. I'm making fleeting edits to the 'Byssus' poems on the basis of the recent readings. More about all this later perhaps...

Friday, 30 September 2011

Road Blog Books!

Taobh an Iar, Dòmhnall Fearghasdan
Grain, John Glenday
Undark, John Glenday
North Uist Works, Andy Goldsworthy
A World of Strangers, Nadine Gordimer
My Childhood, Maxim Gorky
The Torrents of Spring,
Ernest Hemingway
Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway
The Europeans, Henry James
The Dogs of Riga, Henning Mankell
The Concise British Flora in Colour, W. Keble Martin
The Koran
Weaving & Other Pleasant Occupations, R.K. & M.I.R. Polkinghorne
The CEO's Scandalous Affair, Roxanne St. Claire
Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
Confluence, pub. Taigh Chearsabhagh
Secrets of the Sea, Reader's Digest
the outer hebrides – made in holland, fred schley

Road Blog # 5 Wick – Kirkwall & Home...

Here's Niall Campbell on the Hamnavoe, on the way to Stromness. Keep an eye on him, I would – after sharing two readings with him, I can see why he's doing so well, having won this year Eric Gregory Award, a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, and with a pamphlet forthcoming with the excellent Happenstance Press, who also publish Gill Andrews. (Gill wrote 'Tom Potter', one of my Best Scottish Poems 2010). Niall is having his own Poet's Tour in October (scroll down for the dates), so catch him in Inverness, Skye, Lochmaddy or Ullapool if you can...

I gave a workshop at breakneck speed in Wick, having driven from Scourie along the North Coast on a persistently rainy day. I did get a clammy walk at Faraid Head and a hot chocolate at the Loch Croispol Bookshop and Cafe, and snacked as I travelled east on fairly elderly date slices and Manchego. Nice to meet some Wick writers and read in the lovely Fergus Gallery above the Library, and then it was the early boat to Stromness and a slow drive to Kirkwall, detouring by Scapa Flow and the Italian Chapel. VERY TIRED. Sat and stared into middle distance at The Reel for a few hours in the afternoon...and revived with hot pot at Judith Glue before reading at the St Magnus Centre with Niall, and the Orkney poet Morag MacInnes, whose performance is always explosive. She's a fantastic reader of her work – that night, from her Hansel Cooperative Press pamphlet, Alias Isobel, (audio clips here) and from These Islands We Sing.

This morning I finally tottered off the Hrossey in Lerwick, and drove home and unpacked the car. The cat is preparing himself to forgive me, as Uncle Monty put it in Withnail and I, the pressure has been boosted in the boiler (it goes into hibernation when neglected), and there's three days to clean, do laundry and catch up with friends, emails and work before I head off again. I'll make one final post to list the books bought, borrowed and gifted over the last two weeks. Many thanks to Peter Urpeth for the 'Poet's Tour' and to all the folk who put me up, fed me, took part in events and shared their work...

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Road Blog # 4 Skye – Assynt – Wick

MacCaig country – looking southish from the shank of Stac Pollaidh. But it's late, and Niall Campbell and I are booked on the early boat to more of Wick follows...

Skye Rope – Iris blades & plastic

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Road Blog # 3 Stornoway – Harris – Skye

Petrol gauge on the red, but I turned North again in Tarbert to retrace a couple miles and photograph this beautiful mountain – Sron a' Sgaoth (?)

I was a bit raddled by the time I'd crossed North Harris and Lewis on flooded roads, and gone astray in the outskirts of Stornoway. I'm not great at reverse parking these days either. I revived at the Golden Ocean, finishing off the set list while wolfing chilli squid so hot it blistered the roof of my mouth. Big Mamma Frog asks how a poet decides what to read: in my case, the set list is a bit of a comfort blanket, part of the process of persuading myself that it's alright to stand up in front of a group of people and speak. Which poems I read depends a bit on who I'm reading to, where I'm reading, what's on my mind.

I know plenty poets who decide what to read as they go along. I couldn't, but I often substitute, remove or add poems, as I did that night. I shared a stage in the Library Cafe with the Gaelic poet Anne Frater, whose collection Fo’n t-Slige is not easy to get hold of, although her work does appear in Kevin MacNeil's new anthology These Islands We Sing. Anne opened her reading with a set of wry love poems, explaining it took her a long time to 'find her prince' after which I decided to begin with 'Love's Dog', which I don't read very often these days. (Talking of 'Love's Dog', I'm typing this whilst heavily leant on by a spaniel, Max, the 'Orchid Dog' of my first collection, Almanacs.)

I wish I knew Gaelic. But if you don't know a language, you've still the pleasure of dwelling on its song, undistracted by meaning, even punctuated with the words 'laminator' and 'serial killer'. In fact I'm not sure how much information I take in from a single hearing of any poem: an image or phrase or two usually sticks, little more. A great deal of the pleasure taken in someone else's reading is in its ephemerality. Of her English translations, though – Frater's first line invariably plunges you into the heart of her poem. There's absolutely no word wasted, and no blousiness in her imagery, with an added sere edge in poems about the loss of the Iolaire, and about the Iraq War.

Thanks to the staff of the Stornoway Library for their hospitality, and Peter Urpeth for introducing the event, and for organising this Poet's Tour. And for a fine night in the Criterion afterwards, with fiddle, banjo, whistle, bodhrán, dancing and the good company of writer and artist Ian Stephen among others. I'll be AWOL for a couple days now, next reading in Wick on Tuesday night.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Saturation in Harris!

Amazing colours, even in the rain. My jeans are over the hotel radiator drying out, hopefully in time for my reading here in Stornoway. One hour to go, and I've yet to make an set-list...

Road Blog # 2 Portree - Lochmaddy

Welcomed to Lochmaddy with a stack of Taigh Chearsabhagh publications, including a beautiful book 'Taobh an Iar', about the work of painter Dòmhnall Fearghasdan. Plenty paintings and sketches in the book to tide me over after I leave. I love North Uist, the little I remember from a visit a few years ago, and saw through the rain today: lots of tempting looking sand-flats, inklings of waterlilies. Frustrating to leave this morning, but I took a detour to Sollas Bookbinding and had good talks about text and authority and translation with Corinna Krause, who generously showed me her new work and new tools. Thanks to Alex and the folk at Taigh Chearsabhagh for a very fine if too-short stay, and to those who read at the Open Mike!

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Workshop at the Portree Library

The student on the right is Calum Kelly, who wrote a great poem in the session: surreal and really original...

Road Blog #1 Inverness – Portree

I'm only two days into the Poet's Tour and already the car is beginning to smell like someone's living out of it. Total chaos of books (22 copies of mine, John Glenday's wonderful 'Grain' and 'Undark', and ten or so secondhand I've picked up at Leakey's in Inverness and the Nice Cafe and Bookshop in Kyleakin), clay, picnics, clothes escaping suitcase, full array of coats, waterproof and otherwise. Having a lovely and hectic time. I met the Highland Literary Salon on Tuesday night, including Angus Dunn, whose name I've known a long time but never met. Given my love of marine life, it was great to hear about his mobile whelk – wish I could see it for myself.

Yesterday I drove to Skye through Glen Shiel in heavy rain and launched almost immediately into a workshop that included school students and members of the Skye Literary Salon, followed by an interview for Charlotte Johnson's new Atlas Arts Cafe on Radio Cuillin, followed by a reading with Mark O. Goodwin, Iain Oughtred and Val Fellows of the Skye Literary Salon at the Isle of Skye Baking Company. Wonderful to meet Meg Bateman too. It's a great venue: relaxed, easy acoustics, and brilliant food. Thanks to Orla Broderick for organising both events in Skye, and Stewart Lackie for the event in Inverness!

Getting ready to leave for Uist around midday...the sea looks bumpy. Ick.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Porcelain stop...

Home with my mum and dad for the weekend before I head to Inverness for the first of the Poet's tour events...and taking advantage of being near the Potteries to pick up 25kg of porcelain from Potclays for the limpets. I'm travelling Pictishly with an eye for commodities: the clay, a few kilos of sloes, and a mind's-eye compilation of ropes. The thick, adder-striped hawsers that are reeled onto great drums on the Hjaltland's deck as we left the dock at Holmsgarth; an exhibition of steel winding ropes from coal mines at the brilliant Heritage Centre at Apedale, North Staffs.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Venues & Dates for Poet's Tour

Here's the finalised details for my tour round the Highlands and Islands. Hi-Arts have got lots of other poetry events on this autumn, so keep an eye out. Pass it on and hope to see some of you there!

Tuesday 20th September 2011, 7.30pm: The Poets' Tour - reading at Highland Literary Salon, Glen Mhor Hotel, Inverness: free.

Wednesday 21st September 2011 (afternoon): Poetry workshop, 2pm, Portree Library, Portree, Isle of Skye. Places limited, please reserve a place via Portree Library on 01478 614820. Free.

Wednesday 21st September 2011 (evening): The Poets' Tour - reading at Isle of Skye Literary Salon, Isle of Skye Baking Co. Dunvegan Road, Portree: 7.30pm, free, with Myles Campbell and other local poets. Refreshments available, plus the very popular option of a light meal will be served from 5.30pm- 6.45pm in the Bakery with homemade soup, freshly baked breads, salads, cakes & tea/coffee £9.50pp – booking essential for meal on 01478 612669.

Thursday 22nd September, 2011, 7pm: The Poets' Tour - reading at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 7pm, free.

Friday 23rd September, 2011, 7pm: The Poets' Tour - reading with Anne Frater at The Library Cafe, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 7pm: free.

Tuesday 27th September, 2011, 5.45pm - free: poetry workshop at St Fergus Gallery, Wick Library, Sinclair Terrace, Wick, Caithness KW1 5AB - booking essential, places limited, please e-mail Peter Urpeth at to book a place.

Tuesday 27th September, 2011, 7pm: The Poets' Tour - reading with Niall Campbell at St Fergus Gallery, Wick Library, Sinclair Terrace, Wick, Caithness KW1 5AB. Free entry, refreshments available.

Wednesday 28th September, 2011, 7pm: The Poets Tour - reading with Morag MacInnes and Niall Campbell. St Magnus Centre, Kirkwall, Orkney, 7pm, free.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Elves & The Shoemaker

The other day a friend asked me if I had a new manuscript on the go and I said no, believing it. So I'm genuinely surprised to sift this pile of clumsy but sometimes songish drafts on my desk. How to explain it except that someone else must be sneaking in at night and writing them?

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Best British Poetry 2011

is now available...and includes my odd response to Rabelais' wonderful poem 'The Descriptions of King Lent'...all very marine...

I'm just getting ready for my tour of the Highlands & Western Isles: order books; set up autoreply; get in a big store of catfood; check oil, tyres, camera, ferry'll be exciting to be on the road again! I'll be giving readings & workshops in Inverness, Skye, North Uist, Stornoway, Caithness and Orkney...hopefully be able to update the blog a bit as I go...

Friday, 2 September 2011

Old Scatness

Managed to squeeze a third visit to Old Scatness broch and iron-age village in before it closed for the season. Now, I am not good with archeology. I can't hold those great swathes of time in my head. But Scatness is kind of different on account of its living history approach. You get the tour of the aisled wheelhouses and the massive broch that was discovered by accident when diggers building an access road to Sumburgh airport ploughed into its side, but what I love about the place is that the archeologists and historians there also devote time to demonstrations of Pictish crafts, such as the tablet weaving above (photo by Susan Timmins), woodturning, pottery, soapstone carving, silverwork, rope-making. They're making some beautiful work: artists as much as archeologists.

You can also, in quite a casual way, hang around the replica wheelhouse, with its fish-oil lamps and peat fire burning: a quiet, safe, warm, smoky place to hunker down out of the wind and try to imagine what the Pictish life might have been like. That's tricky, because Pict seems to be more a cultural term than a temporal one...the Picts 'appear' later in Shetland than South. That makes it sound like the Picts arrived from somewhere else: not so. The late Iron Age people just start being called Picts when certain decorative artefacts, like Scatness's carved bear stone, begin to show up. It's this cultural definition that makes me long to be able to relate to this lost community. And after all, some things about Pictish Shetland haven't changed much. It's still a place rich in resources, and in its creative and expressive folk.

What I took from this particular visit was a metaphor, but I don't want to speak about it until I see if it's going to become a poem or the meantime, I've got a terrible yearning to build a turf kiln...

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Very happy with my new header!

You can see more illustrations by brilliant Goutwort here.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Eagerly awaiting arrival of LEDs...

 stage in limpet evolution...

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Poetry School

The Poetry School's autumn/spring program is out, which includes poetry workshops in various UK venues, downloadable writing exercises, and a series of online courses too! I'll be teaching one titled 'Make It Strange' – see here for details...

Friday, 12 August 2011

Nordic Fiddler's Bloc

– magic. Sound clips here..and a CD out very soon...

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Lina Peterson at Cove Park

Jeweller Lina Peterson has just posted some images of her work-in-progress from Cove Park...

Friday, 29 July 2011

Downloadable Poetry Poster

Just found out that the Scottish Poetry Library have made a downloadable poster of Alasdair Paterson's wonderful poem 'on the library'. Print one for yourself here!

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Tall Ships, Lerwick

The band on the Victoria Pier stage gets most of the cold crowd's attention. The fiddler's wearing fingerless gloves; the singer's hood's hooked on her head. Half the audience is in the steamy beer tent. The rain sweeps down on the other half, and the northerly bells out the flagged rigging in tense, shivering arcs on 47 tall ships.

The audience stamp and sway and yell and whistle but half the collective consciousness is always going to be distracted, glancing all about to see who's joining the crowd, who's fraying away. The influx of new souls that have come with the boats have changed the dynamic, too, like a sudden plankton bloom. There's face-painters, bands, crews, food sellers, fairground rides, craft stalls; man on stilts, person with a puffin's head. There's a guy clinging to a hauled anchor, painting it black. There's the fisheries boat. A container ship passing up. The Bressay ferry trundling back and fore. Ropes slapping in the wind.

And folk. Colleagues and bosses from all the jobs you've ever done, and there are the dear friends and the ones you like but never seem to see and the surprising number of faces you don't know. Folk you know but don't recognise until the last minute because of the waterproofs cinched tight about their faces. Ones who've moved away but come back for Tall Ships. People who are good at names, and people who are good at faces. People who are good at both, or ones like me who are good at neither. Local celebrities. Neighbours and their families. The friends who give you a home. The friends who tell you what you want to hear and those who tell you what you don't want to hear, and the ones that listen, and the ones that don't, but make you laugh, and there are the ones whose communication is coded and clever, talking on one level and meaning on another, and the ones who are completely transparent in all their communication. There are the ex's and the new partners, and the ones terrified of running into them; and there are more whose losses are more present and more painful.

This hyper-sensitive consciousness, generously and necessarily aware of other lives, is always vulnerable. The Town Hall flag's at half mast, and everyone is thinking of Norway.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Leaving Cove Park

Leaving day is strange. I spent the moment preparing cuttings of hazel, holly, rowan, birch and honeysuckle in the hope they'll survive my roundabout return to Shetland (a complicated tupperware contraption with wet paper towel and seperated ice; making one final rope (last year's reeds and pink plastic marine fibre); porridge; packing; sweeping (I like sweeping); strip the bed; goodbyes – I'm so happy about the folk I've met here. Ducks and deer this morning. Heading off for the little ferry from Kilcreggan soon, then Gourock – Glasgow – Edinburgh.

I said I'd try and articulate a little of Jan Vervoert's lecture. Better to look his new book up, but I'm taking away with me his extrapolation of the idea of musical instruments that can protect you from demons because they contain a demon; that perhaps, when you draw something, what you draw enters your moving wrist, demon-like. I couldn't help but think of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Art as mimicry. Which is moving to me, so interested as I am in how we mimic each others' spoken language both deliberately and involuntarily.
Ideas about different ways to bear emotion and responsibility. Ideas about emotion being a public and not a private thing, as we often like to think. And this is where I'll have to stop, because my lift is waiting...

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Day 11: Gone A Bit Quiet Hasn't It?

But that's a good sign...the last few days have been increasingly intense. Each residential cube is provided with a little deck over a shared pond, and I've been spending my working hours drifting between the deck and desk. On the deck a length of grass rope hangs from the rail which I've been laboriously wrapping with the pink nylon marine line (remember the craze for hair-wraps) to make a slightly repellant string that resembles coral, or bronchi of the human lung, if you've seen images of a preserved one. Some kind of basket/sculpture has been shaping up in my subconscious: it's either going to look marine or human; I think perhaps a heart-like structure from which might or might not sit a couple of washed up lighters in strong and mild transparent pinks, like valves. And on the desk the novel is ... metamorphosing, I'm not entirely sure what into, but it's feeling good...

Last night curator and art critic Jan Verwoert gave a talk. My head's still ringing with it all; as ever, I'm afraid to paraphrase. I might try and articulate some of this stuff in a bit.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Archipelago: Day 6

My second night here, I crossed Cove Park's watershed and looked down upon Helensburgh and Faslane port, with its booms and docks and alarmingly extensive accommodations. It wasn't just the sight of the nuclear missile base that made me feel odd; something has been coming clear in my head about Shetland, being here. I realise I relish the fact that I can position myself at the top of Sannick Hill, at Houlland or Dunscanclate, and see most of it in one go (at least the south mainland), clear down to the cliffs and red radio light of Fitful Head. If people were inclined to call this awareness of your boundaries 'limiting', Shetland compensates with extraordinary richness on the macro level: the tiny exotic plants of bog and heath, the sundew and butterwort, milkwort, orchids and squill, tormentil, heather, bog asphodel, scabious, bog-cotton...let alone the shore.

Perhaps there's a corresponding perturbation about the lack of boundaries in my attempt to write this novel. I can't hold the story in my head: its endless narrative linearity; unforeseeable consequences; it's as my imagination isn't strong enough to clear the watershed. Which might sound negative, but I'm feeling very freed by the possibilities of it. I went back to that view last night, climbing the forestry track, picking up pine cones, putting them down, walking fast, resolving to let that narrative find its own form. Perhaps that form will be more archipelagic in some way...

Little holiday yesterday: I walked to Kilcreggan for grocery shop, chocolate ice-cream and a coffee. Sunburn, and a monumental blister on my right heel from walking 4 miles or so in wellies...

Friday, 8 July 2011

'The Good, Kind, Sane Little Animals' – Cove Park, Day 4

The last couple of days I've been reading Beyond the Outer Shores, Eric Enno Tamm's biography of Ed Ricketts 'The Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell.'

Ricketts spent a summer in Clayoquot, where my story's set, albeit a decade and a half earlier, and this episode is brilliant for insights about the Princess Maquinna, the legendary steamship that serviced the lighthouses, missions, logging camps, canneries and villages of the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

"The Maquinna is an ugly ship [...] with her thin, elongated funnel and her illproportioned bow, she is ugly from any direction in which you look at her [...] she has stolen the hearts of the people, and I doubt if any vessel afloat could be more beloved."

Ricketts, (the barely-disguised 'Doc' in Steinbeck's Cannery Row) spent his Clayoquot summer foraging at low tide for marine life, making a painstaking inventory of the 'good, kind sane little animals' of the shore. I've been using the book to extend my reading list, get a better sense of the huge significance of the pub at Clayoquot (one of only three on the west coast of Vancouver Island at the time), then sitting and staring and eventually drawing out a little more of my own story, which has been so neglected for the last month or so.

The folk are good. Last night I spent some time talking novel (particularly the pure intent of the ones which are never meant to be published, and what a luxury the absence of ambition can be) with Claire Wigfall. Her debut The Loudest Sound and Nothing was published by Faber in 2007 and she's currently the Book Trust's Writer in Residence.

The others are visual artist Chris Evans, James Rigler, a ceramicist, with whom ('with whom'!) I've debated benefits of various courgette species; Olufemi Terry, who won the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing, currently resident in Berlin, Lina Peterson, a jeweller; Roanne Dods and Frances Priest – this weeks 'Creative Catalysts', who led us astray yesterday to the ruins of St Peter's Seminary in Cardross, just down the road from Hell(ensborough); a vast tangle of graffitied concrete and drifts of shattered glass. It rained and thundered, what Rickett's might have called 'Old Testament Rain'. It looked like the multi-storey carpark in Altrincham Town Centre. The niches in which the trainee priests (we speculate) could pray, dripped. Frances directed us to 'Concrete Britain' when we got back which merges footage of the seminary ruin and the building in use: elegant, bright, airy, modern.

In the evening Roanne opened a discussion about the artist's perception of their place in our culture. It wasn't long before we'd all got hung up on the money, which is always a circular kind of riff. It's a bit of a necessary purge, maybe, to talk about it but I usually feel as if I've been a bit foulmouthed afterwards.

Something new feels possible in the work in this reprieve from habitual life. It's occurred to me that a pessimist consciousness almost can't help but express a pessimist world populated by pessimists, which certainly has never struck me as the prevailing weather in 1930s Tofino, whose country dances Ricketts describes as 'peppy and drunken', despite its hardships.' Whisky crops up a lot, as I believe it did in my grandfather's days as G.P. in Tofino in the 30s.

'"It was at Tofino," a passenger once remembered, "that we realized to our absolute horror that we were running out of Scotch." [...] Ricketts had taken action by "self-consciously" carting a couple cases of beer up the Maquinna's gangway.'

So maybe I should follow Rickett's example when I finally get around to going into Kilcreggan for groceries. Sort of looking forward to getting my hands on the truck, but I'm liking walking the roads and forestry tracks in the immediate vicinity even more. I enjoy the limits of what's walkable. And to be seen there are: bats, dragonflies, newts, swallows, swifts or housemartins (some time I'll learn the difference) a herd of Highland cows that drowse around the pods and cubes, and this morning I found an owl feather, that jumps in your fingers as you draw it down through the air, thick brindles softened by the extra pelt that acts as a silencer.

Still missing the cat though.

(All quotations from Beyond The Outer Shores, Eric Enno Tamm, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 2004)

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Extremities: Cove Park, Day 2

I could've been in Tofino this morning with the boggy Argyll forest smelling of wet dog and the visible spears of rain driving through me like mycelial threads. Being shot through with some binding material, web or spore. I didn't mind the wet at all until I crossed the road that leads to the naval base at Coulport and over the trampled fencing into that meadow of buttercup and tufted vetch and long grasses just at the point of spilling their seed. I was up to my waist in it, and felt the waste as the rain-laden seedheads burst across my jeans. The denim drank down that rainwater so fast that before I was halfway across the field my boots were filling up with water.

I crunched over a brittle crust of spootshells, cockles, smislins, live mussels, like the caramelised glaze on creme brulee, thick, so there was no way you'd see a siphon beneath. Nor did I feel like hawking about in that mud for nothing. I waded out into the shallows, to just below the throats of my boots. I always end up with my boots filling with water at some point anyway, even on a still day when the waves are a mild uplift and drag down on their rubber. Mostly I just like an excuse to stand in the water and feel the gristly membrane respond to the movement of the water. I like to wade into the water and see the membrane of the sea undulating away from me. Immersion is important. The amphibious mode.

There's a lot more going on than I expected in the mud of this populated shore. Something that might be young lobsters or perhaps some kind of shrimp, their front ends a bustle of busy transparent proto-claws. About the length of my thumb. I wonder how much marine life, when it comes down to things that we might eat, gets measured in relation to the human hand. Welks, by which I mean winkles, are considered large enough to pick if their operculum is the size of your thumbnail.

After the recent hot spell, my right hand is much more tanned than the left, being my writing hand. Due to the positioning of my desk at the east-facing window, it travels across a sunlit page for most the morning like the stylus of a lie detector, or some kind of knitting, knotting or netting machine, fussy and abrupt, making sloppy or tight fankles of ink, a spidery black lacework. I like to see the branched veins close to the surface, strong and rich, like mandrakes (I mean mangroves): it means I'm warm through, right to the tips of my Reynaud's extremities. Reynaud's doesn't do me any harm, except for chilblains in winter, and a listless, uncommitted, unhopeful mood that comes over me when a few fingers in the sheaf are white and yellow, like chloropyll-starved leaves.

Those little lobsters darted away from my boots and lay as still as they could on the sandy bottom. Then, with a sly whisking of transparent feelers, they sank below the surface of the sand, one fussily arranging a square of shell on its back as it submerged. I remember when we used to beg to be buried on the beach. Wet sand was best because whoever was getting buried could be neatly plastered with a smooth skim of sand. I remember the deadened percussion of palms slapping the shell over torso and legs. There was the pleasure of shifting subtly below the carapace of silica, breathing shallowly, guessing how your bodily disturbance would crack the dome of sand above. Then there were the games of abandonment, where your family pretended to have lost or forgotten you, trapped in your sand lung like a larvae, responsible for your own hatching, the possible ticking or scratching or tunneling of sand life against your skin, horrible lugworms, perhaps. You exploded from the sand cast like a lugworm yourself or someone took pity and turned back or the game became the one where your sister pretended you were a bone and dug you up like a dog. You broke free anyway, still belonging, caked in grit, which no amount of ducking in the sea or towelling would get off entirely before you piled tired and sticky into the car.

The rain hissed on the water and my hood and the mountains on the far side of the shore were obscured by low cloud. Apt scene for a submarine to cruise. Below the surface the huge colony of hermit crabs, mostly inhabiting empty welk shells, rolled about in pursuit of each other like marbles, deflecting and diverting. The urgent activity extended over the flats. I panned out and then waded out and wondered what the consequences of almost exclusive use of the macro lens may prove to be.

I found a way back to the gate through shorter grasses but it was too late for my socks. As I walked uphill water was forced out of my socks and insoles and up around my ankles with each step. My two feet a sort of composite heart structure, pumping cooling fluid around the rubberised chambers.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

First Day at Cove Park – Chatter

"There is the silence before one just as difficult to disturb significantly as before.What one has learned is inadequate against the new silence presented."

('The Nightfisherman – Selected Letters of W.S.Graham (Carcanet, 1999).

Yesterday I arrived in Argyll for a two week residency, and I've spent today slowly settling in, starting coming to terms with the fact that "no outcomes" are expected. Pretty rare, that. Basically, you get paid to shack up with your own funny head for a few weeks and work if you feel like it. You're allowed to just sleep if you like. Now, it sounded very enlightened, but it turns out that 'no outcomes and nothing expected' isn't just as easy to accept as all that. If I don't work, what am I? So I've been a bit unsettled today: new place, working out where to start, how I'll begin to try and 'disturb the language'. Missing the cat.

Last night I walked down to the beach. Muddy shingle; hermit crabs; lots of spoot shells, but no sign of siphons. It would be good to forage here. The different light you get on water when there are mountains. Bewildering lack of wind and occasionally, an inexplicable urgent backwash on the shore, which gave me the willies as I considered it might be caused by submarines passing underwater to Coulport. Don't think I'll be swimming after all. But I gathered some dry seaweed and some of the everpresent plastic fishing fibre you find at the tideline, and today I've made rope out of them. The fibre is salmon pink, and nicely luminous within the red and coppery weed. I might get around to making a basket out of it. It's good to make rope out of seaweed: your hands slick with agar as if you were assisting a birth; or as if you were actually extruding the vegetable hawser from your own spinnarets, as a spider extrudes web.

Some reading today. Gerald Manley Hopkins, but I didn't have the patience for the God-bit, although I enjoyed his mania and the drubbing his verbs give you 'does so rinse and wring/The ear [...]' And I admire the way he couples those bleached abstracts with imagery that's weird enough to be compulsive. Can't imagine getting away with the opening line 'Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –' myself, and yet I love this, that follows 'When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush[...]'

Otherwise, I've snacked compulsively (the visibility of the little kitchen from the writing desk may be a problem) and napped (the visibility of the bed from the writing desk may be a problem.) But napping, I propped the notebook and pen on my knees and shut my eyes, and everytime I became aware of a bit of 'chatter' rising up through my subconscious, I wrenched my eyes open and wrote it down.

"No, I'm a member of staff! No, I'm not slow –"

"Phone your baby. I'm gonna di–"

"Keep crisscrossing for mixed stones and make sure they're all of one colour."

"So you're both Mrs B.S.?" (Checking my eyelids, friendly-like. )

"Bob, it'll only take you one minute" (American)

"Have you heard about the three Danes? There's one sitting where I'm sitting..."

Although it's tempting to try and use this stuff for divination, my fascination with it is that it's so aligned with my preoccupations in poetry just now. Obviously, it's the reverse of intention, it's a way of forgetting the self, and there's a spookiness about it. Where does it come from, after all? Who's doing the voices?

Then I passed out for real. 'Nap' seems an incongrously cute word for something you start up from with your heart pounding, trembling all over.

This evening there's going to be a kind of happy hour to meet the other residents...

Monday, 6 June 2011

Sunday's littoral...

Danish migraine tablets...Nivea Classic Care Shine Shampoo: 'reveals fascinating shine in all its facets – silk protein and orchid extracts'...right...'for normal and unproblematic hair'...fishbox from MFV Miraculous, Clogherhead...vegetable crate from Prince de Bretagne: 'Défendons le goût de frais' eider on her nest, so a quick retreat...

and Monday's literal....

'The eyelids are formed as small cutaneous folds which about the middle of the third month come together and unite in front of the cornea...'

Gray's Anatomy 'The Organ of Sight'

Monday, 30 May 2011

Credo The Day

Something is wrong in the way that I'm writing
what I'm writing about or why.

I asked the poems to be Aztec descriptions of things
in the familiar world and that is all they obediently are.

They have the rhythm of things that are like other things
buckled and braced with similes, turreted clauses.

When you say, it is like, it is like, it is like, you make emphatic
equations: inward-looking things. The true poetry

can't be far off – like parallel universes, you're nearly there –
but not until you shrug off this vector.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Patella – The Dominant Species

Time for an update on the limpet situation. I picked up my latest batch this week and feel like I'm getting somewhere: their form is much blousier, and I'm finally getting the porcelain thin enough for light to shine through. Incredibly exciting, because for me, its translucency is the most mesmerising thing about porcelain. I'm intending to try firing some of these with in a matt, translucent glaze, but in the meantime, I settled the colony in on my windowsill, and peered over the laptop at them as I worked to see how they would behave. As soon as the sun hit the windowsill, they began to glow with a lovely submerged golden light, making me think this species is one of those furnished with photophores: light-emitting cells. Speculate that these may attract prey to within the reach of the hunting limpet.

My feeling about these limpets has been that they should seem subtly animated in some way, but I wasn't quite sure how this would happen. I've had ideas about an installation where they move up and down the walls of a gallery space 'with the tide'; and I noticed that the ones with a single feeding pore gave the impression of having a vestigial face. When I tilted a couple towards each other, they seemed to be communicating or negotiating.

Instead of a single large feeding pore, some have a ring of small holes around the shell (females?) Through these emerge fans of retractable 'hairs' with which they sweep the current in search of their very small beer.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


Yesterday I went from the literal to the lovelier littoral, bending, picking, swilling about in the warming shallows. A pair of loons (I think) barked on the water and the eiders and skylarks lightened my mood after the morning's work on the novel, which was grisly and effortful. I gave up after a while to open Bull of the Woods – The Gordon Gibson Story. Gibson grew up making a tough living from lumber and later shipping on the West Coast of B.C. in the 20s and 30s. He can hardly get through a page without a reference to his interest in 'the ladies'. He's continually hopping in and out of windows and letting himself into hotel rooms: 'I crept along the hall and picked a door that seemed about right [...] crawling on my hands and knees over to the bed, I felt about the covers to make my presence known to the young lady.'

The winkles on the rocky bottom here were caked in a Battenberg-pink coral or sponge and I saw more of those animals that are like transparent potatoes. Does anybody know what they are? Broken shells of smislins and spoots, but no sign of siphons. Yearning for a new language for the draining meadows coming firm underfoot, the distended hill, the time of butterwort (penny-girse) and royal blue milkwort; tirricks, geese and shalder. That yearning is the place from which poems have so often started for me but I'm still pretty self-conscious. In the meantime I sorted out some things that have been troubling me about the novel, in my head, at least, which doesn't mean all that much. Guddling in the chiffons of algal bloom: "you're asking too much of the narrative to try and set the action in a space of three winter months; it might not work to relegate so much history to the back-story."

I'm working on too many different things at once, again, I think. In the last two days I've worked at novel, welk-ebb, poetry; then there's been mentoring, plans for woven baskets made from bruck materials, sequinned (I think) with with plastics reclaimed from the sea and hole-punched. I might make Greenlandic/Danish sequins from that shipping ticket, too, or opercula of (poor old) winkles. I'm looking forward to picking up a batch of the bisque-fired porcelain limpets today too. I feel like a prism, splitting the light. But what else can you do with so much light?

Monday, 9 May 2011


I went for a walk in the wind yesterday, roundabout high tide. I wanted to see how all that stuff that piles up behind the geo – heavy yellow wellies, planks, pallets – scales that three or four metres of rock. It must come up on a westerly, though, and this was from the east, pouring over the Clift Hills and smacking into the Voe, plucking at the windbreak round my veg garden. The warm wind wrenched me like a bad tooth and drove me towards the cliffs. My rocket and radish and beet seedlings were burnt to the earth, but the little purple flowers on the cliff were fine, just shaking and bending. I'll call them rubber-wort. What I did find was a plasticised shipping document from the Royal Arctic Line, bilingual, in Greenlandic and Danish. It was lying in a ditch that runs near one of the lochans behind the house. You can look up live ship positions on the Royal Arctic website, and it shows one of their routes running just south of Shetland on its way to the Western Coast of Greenland. Up to this point my favourite piece of flotsam has been a crate of Russian ketchup. Now I'm having a nice lunch-break from the novel, trying to work out which of their ships it fluttered off, using google translate for a crash course in Danish, trying to work out the 'Vejledning' (Instructions) on the reverse:

'Containerens endelig DESTINATION angives tydeligt med stor skrift': 'The container's final destination indicated neatly in big font' (capitals?) Ah dear. For time-wasting, who needs Facebook?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

'You can't hand someone a lump of uranium. You have to wrap it in lead.'

Here's an interview at Cyprus Well with Rachael Boast about her new collection, Sidereal, which is out now with Picador. I like what she has to say about where poems come from, and about how a poet has to manage the two contrary impulses 'the heightened sense of something...and the managing of that into poetic form.'

Friday, 1 April 2011

Best Scottish Poems 2010

Last year I was asked to select the Scottish Poetry Library's 'Best Scottish Poems' for 2010. Here's my choice...

Saturday, 1 January 2011